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Predicting the NBA’s Western Conference

Basketball Insiders’ writers take a close look at the West and make some predictions.

Basketball Insiders

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Yesterday, several of Basketball Insiders’ writers took a close look at the Eastern Conference and made their predictions. Today, we take a look at the Western Conference and make some picks:

 

Top Point Guard

Lang Greene: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors. Listen. Chris Paul has the prototypical approach and Russell Westbrook is more explosive, but at the end of the day Curry should emerge as the Western Conference’s top point guard in 2014-15. Curry can score from anywhere on the floor and has improved his playmaking in recent years. Sky is the limit.

Nate Duncan: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors. This might be the toughest call on the board for me, a three-way race between Chris Paul, Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook. Curry was the most valuable last year because he played the most games, and he actually would appear to be less of a health risk than the other two now that he is two years removed from ankle problems. I think he is also the best offensive player of this group because his shooting ability off the pick and roll requires so much defensive attention that it opens things up for others–something that was manifest in the massive difference in the Warriors’ offense when he was on and off the court. Westbrook was amazing in the playoffs, but he is not quite at the level where he basically creates an above-average offense by himself the way Curry does. Paul was probably the best of the group on a per minute basis last year, especially once including his defense, but at age 29 he may start to slow down a bit. Curry is the pick, by a nose.

Jessica Camerato: Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs. Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry garner attention for their flashiness and high scoring ways. Tony Parker, however, takes home top honors for being a winner. What better point guard than one who can lead the team to the title?

Joel Brigham: Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers. Energized by new ownership and an even more talented group of teammates, Paul should pretty easily be the Western Conference’s best floor general. He may even garner a respectable handful of MVP votes before it’s all said and done.

Moke Hamilton: Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers. There are a select few who critique Chris Paul for his teams’ relative lack of success in the playoffs over the course of his career. Shame on them for not being able to enjoy one of this generation’s best point guards and one of the game’s top floor generals to take the court over the past 20 years. Paul is so clearly the top point guard in the league in my opinion, I put all of about five seconds into selecting him here.

 

Top Shooting Guard

Lang Greene: James Harden, Houston Rockets. Harden has no real interest in defense and if you have him outside of your top 10 that’s likely the reason why. But the man is one of the most prolific scoring forces the league has seen over the past 20 years and he’s just getting started.

Nate Duncan: James Harden, Houston Rockets. Harden has been much-maligned for his defense, and it has been a problem. That said, the videos highlighting his foibles have overemphasized the issue in the public consciousness. Harden is so far beyond any other two-guard offensively that his defense doesn’t dislodge him from a comfortable seat atop this list. The ability to efficiently create shots for oneself and others is the rarest and most important skill in basketball. Harden has it, and that is far more important than his defense.

Jessica Camerato: James Harden, Houston Rockets. Key word here is “shooting,” and there’s no doubting James Harden’s offensive abilities. He is one of the most dangerous players with the ball in his hands. There is no telling how high he can run up the scoreboard on a given night.

Joel Brigham: James Harden, Houston Rockets. There’s not a more versatile scoring guard in the NBA right now. The guy is just deadly from everywhere. He’s so good, in fact, that it doesn’t matter he’s so brutal defensively.

Moke Hamilton: Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers. Gordon Hayward might be paid like he’s the best, but I’ve got both Klay Thompson and James Harden ahead of him and agree that an argument can be made for Monta Ellis. But at this point, Kobe Bryant is still the top shooting guard in the conference, in my opinion. In short, that designation is based on the expectation that we have not seen the last of Bryant at his best. We can only hope that to be true.

 

Top Small Forward

Lang Greene: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder. The only thing left for the reigning league MVP to accomplish is winning his first NBA championship. Durant’s ascent to stardom comes as no surprise, but the true respect will come after he hoists his first Larry O’Brien trophy in the air at season’s end. Will this be the year?

Nate Duncan: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder. Next.

Jessica Camerato: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder. Durant is right behind LeBron James when it comes to player rankings. James is the best in the NBA at this position, and Durant rules the West. There is no doubting his dominance at small forward and on the court in general.

Joel Brigham: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder. The reigning MVP is a scoring machine built by the gods on Mount Olympus specifically to assist basketballs into orange netted cylinders. He improved nearly everywhere last year—as a defender, rebounder and distributor—and there’s little reason to believe he won’t be even better this year. How frightening is that? Yes, Kevin Durant could get even better.

Moke Hamilton: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder will not win a championship with Durant unless they manage to find him a low-post force, but that doesn’t mean that Durant isn’t the top small forward in the conference. He is today and may be for the next seven to eight years. What I’m more interested in seeing is whether or not Russell Westbrook ever realizes that in order for the Thunder to be great, he needs to evolve just a little bit.

 

Top Power Forward

Lang Greene: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans. Sure there are bigger names you could place here out of respect or if you’re playing it safe, but Davis is on a mission and it’s perfectly fine if you acknowledge it now. Just 21 years old, Davis is already an All-Star, Gold medalist, coming off a 20/10 season and led the league in blocks per game in 2014. Respect now or respect later.

Nate Duncan: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans. This comes down to Davis and Blake Griffin. Davis was actually better than Griffin a year ago based solely on his box score stats, but scored very poorly in plus/minus-based systems. I expect that to change this year, if his defense during the World Cup is any indication. Griffin will likely be a superior offensive player, but Davis will probably be a top-three defensive power forward this year, which puts him over the top. Honorable mention to Dirk Nowitzki, who is still a tremendous offensive force but is now a major liability on defense and the boards while playing a lot fewer minutes.

Jessica Camerato: LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers. Aldridge will be one of the more intriguing players to watch this season. He established himself as a double-double threat and has the sky-high potential. With Kevin Love playing in the Eastern Conference, expect Aldridge’s performances to shine even more in the West.

Joel Brigham: LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers. While plenty of arguments could be made in favor of Blake Griffin here, Aldridge pushed himself into another stratosphere last season by bolstering his defense, improving his rebounding and proving that he can be the team’s primary scoring option (or at least share primary scoring duties with Damian Lillard). The Blazers are great because he’s on the roster; take Griffin out of the picture in L.A. and they don’t lose as much as you think.

Moke Hamilton: Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers. I actually had LaMarcus Aldridge here but opted to anoint Blake Griffin after considering that, while Aldridge is probably a better shooter, Griffin has the rare ability to handle the ball and not only create scoring opportunities for himself off of the dribble, but to do the same for his teammates and execute the final pass that leads to the score. Aldridge’s back-to-the-basket game is far superior, making this a tough call, but in the end, I’ll take Griffin, though I do acknowledge that he and Damian Lillard probably couldn’t win 54 games.

 

Top Center

Lang Greene: DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings. Cousins either does it for you or he doesn’t, but he is undoubtedly one of the most prolific scoring and rebounding big men in the game today. After spending the last portion of the summer winning a Gold medal with Team USA in Spain, Cousins may be ready to take his game up a level – an All-Star level.

Nate Duncan: Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets. Lost in the Rockets’ disappointing loss to Portland was Howard’s monster series. It was the closest he has looked to Orlando Dwight since his back surgery. Howard and Patrick Beverley single-handedly propped up Houston’s defense to acceptable levels during the regular season, and Howard is still a force finishing inside or punishing certain matchups in the post. Tim Duncan is a close runner up in this category, but does not play enough minutes or score quite well enough one-on-one anymore to eclipse Howard. DeMarcus Cousins was actually far above each player based on his box score statistics, but until he improves his defense (essential for a center) and efficiency he won’t be better than Duncan or Howard.

Jessica Camerato: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans. It’s time to show ‘em what he’s got. This should be a breakout season for Anthony Davis, who has very quietly emerged as one of the top big men in the league. He has flown under the radar given the New Orleans Pelicans’ record, but expect him to be making plenty of noise.

Joel Brigham: Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets. Still one of the most physically intimidating players in the league, Howard is a defensive powerhouse with more-than-respectable offensive skills. He has dunked and blocked his way into Houston’s hearts, showing that his slow year with the Lakers was just an anomaly.

Moke Hamilton: Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies. Dwight Howard probably impacts a game more than Gasol does, but in terms of skill, Gasol has a proven ability to stretch the floor as a center, consistently find teammates, play with his back to the basket, guard multiple front court positions and, of course, make free-throws. If I could only choose one player for my time, I’d take Howard, but if you’re asking me which of those two are the “better” player, overall, I’m taking Gasol.

 

Top Sixth Man

Lang Greene: Jamal Crawford, Los Angeles Clippers. The two-time Sixth Man of the Year award winner is without question one of the league’s best reserves. Expecting anything different for the 2014-15 campaign would simply be foolish.

Nate Duncan: Manu Ginobili, San Antonio Spurs. There are a ton of worthy sixth man candidates in the West, including Isaiah Thomas, Ryan Anderson, Reggie Jackson and Draymond Green. Also, watch out for Gorgui Dieng as an emerging bench player if he can build on what he did at the end of last season. But Ginobili has aged exceptionally well and was the best of these players per minute again last year. Note that I did not include Jamal Crawford. He too has aged well, but his defense is horrendous and he takes enough bad shots that he keeps the ball out of the hands of more efficient options for the Clippers when he plays with the starters.

Jessica Camerato: Jamal Crawford, Los Angeles Clippers. Until someone else steps in and yanks this award out of his hands, Crawford continues to be the most reliable sixth man in the game. This is his honor to lose.

Joel Brigham: Isaiah Thomas, Phoenix Suns. It’s hard to gauge how the minutes will play out with Thomas, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe all tussling over playing time at the point guard spot, but there may not be a more potent scoring point guard in the league coming off of someone’s bench. Jamal Crawford and Manu Ginobili will likely be in the conversation here (because they always are), but Thomas is younger and arguably more talented at this point, which is why he gets my vote.

Moke Hamilton: Jamal Crawford, Los Angeles Clippers. If I thought hard enough, I could probably think of one or two guys (like, perhaps, Manu Ginobili) that merit consideration here, but the truth of the matter is that Crawford has made a career out of being a proficient bench-scorer, just like J.R. Smith of the New York Knicks. Crawford also happens to be a two-time Sixth Man of the Year Award winner—the most recent coming last season. Clearly, I’m not the only one that feels this way.

 

Top Head Coach

Lang Greene: Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs. While Rick Carlisle has done a remarkable job in Dallas over the years, when it comes to Western Conference sideline generals Popovich is at the head of the class – especially coming off another championship season.

Nate Duncan: Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs. This is his spot until further notice. I’m guessing that is what everyone else wrote too.

Jessica Camerato: Gregg Popovich. The man of few words doesn’t require many to demonstrate his coaching greatness. His championship-winning record speaks for itself.

Joel Brigham: Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs. Until proven otherwise, he’s impossible to bet against. He’s maybe the only guy in the league with a real balance between actually being a good coach and knowing how to handle a roster of NBA egos. Perhaps more importantly, he also knows how to rest his most valuable players.

Moke Hamilton: Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs. Seriously, though, is this something we even have to consider? You do realize that after Popovich, the second-longest tenured Western Conference head coach is Rick Carlise? He took over in 2008—12 years after Popovich. That says all you need to know.

 

Top Executive

Lang Greene: R.C. Buford, San Antonio Spurs. The moves aren’t the flashiest. The transactions don’t create mainstream headlines. But the decisions coming out of the Spurs’ front office has kept the franchise relevant even as Father Time has caught up to the core group.

Nate Duncan: R.C. Buford, San Antonio Spurs. The West has some very solid front offices, but Buford has managed to assemble a consistent 60-win team and championship contender without anyone who qualifies as a superstar at this point in their career. Most NBA observers believed that was almost impossible.

Jessica Camerato: Doc Rivers, Los Angeles Clippers. Doc Rivers took a stand this summer in the Donald Sterling situation and reaffirmed his commitment to his team and the Los Angeles Clippers community. Rivers has a long-standing reputation as a top coach and in his role with the Clippers, he already has made positive impressions in the front office.

Joel Brigham: R.C. Buford, San Antonio Spurs. Usually when a team wins a championship with a lot of soon-to-be free agents, as the Spurs just did, it’s impossible to get everyone to re-sign since inevitably someone will have played himself into a bigger contract elsewhere. Somehow, Buford and Popovich figured out how to keep all the important pieces of this championship squad together despite the recent ring. That, and Buford’s ability to constantly make smart trades and brilliant draft picks, keeps him at the head of the pack in the Western Conference.

Moke Hamilton: R.C. Buford, San Antonio Spurs. It wouldn’t be fair to give this designation to anyone but R.C. Buford, but you want to know who I considered putting here? Donnie Nelson of the Dallas Mavericks. Nelson has been there with Mark Cuban tearing down and building up team after team, played an integral role in acquiring Dirk Nowitzki and eventually helped construct the 2011 title team that pulled off one of the biggest NBA Finals upsets ever. You have to go with Buford, but Nelson is nipping at his heels.

 

Top Rookie

Lang Greene: Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves. With all due respect to Julius Randle, who will have a great opportunity to shine in Los Angeles, Wiggins is the most hyped rookie in the class and he has the game to back it up. The question is if he’s assertive enough to bring it each and every night. Minnesota will give him every opportunity to live up to the hype and I believe the young man gets it done.

Nate Duncan: Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves. I have not been very high on Wiggins’ potential as a superstar, but he should be able to defend (at least individually) right away and should start at one of the wing positions. Nobody else drafted in the West projects as a surefire starter, so he has to be the pick. If the Lakers wise up and develop Julius Randle over their other dead-end frontcourt options, he could emerge as the pick here. Nik Stauskas is another dark horse if he wins the starting shooting guard spot in Sacramento.

Jessica Camerato: Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves. A top pick who has already been traded? Sounds like chip-on-your-shoulder motivation to me. Wiggins already had the talent, now he has the extra drive since being traded from the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Kevin Love deal.

Joel Brigham: Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves. There’s zero risk in taking the top overall selection as the best rookie in his conference, but looking at the other candidates this really doesn’t even look close. Wiggins will have the opportunity to develop however Flip Saunders deems necessary on what should be a pretty bad Wolves team, and as we saw last year with Michael Carter-Williams, good players on bad teams put up pretty big numbers.

Moke Hamilton: Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves. I could easily go with Julius Randle here, but we simply do not know how Byron Scott is going to utilize him or how Carlos Boozer will affect him. Aside from that, Wiggins has two-way NBA talent and will have the opportunity to be “the man” in Minneapolis from day one. Wiggins may be the top rookie, but not necessarily the top sophomore. Stay tuned.

 

 

Top Sophomore

Lang Greene: Trey Burke, Utah Jazz. The Jazz handed the keys to their offense to Burke last season and the guard showed promise. In the season’s final month, Burke averaged 15.6 points and nine assists per game, potentially foreshadowing what’s to come down the road.

Nate Duncan: Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder. This is a four-way race between Adams, Trey Burke, Gorgui Dieng and possibly Rudy Gobert if his summer league and international performances are for real. But Adams is the only one of these players who might actually start for a playoff team. Without any stars in this mix, he is the pick.

Jessica Camerato: Gorgui Dieng, Minnesota Timberwolves. It is always encouraging when a player ends his rookie season on a note as high as Dieng did. The big man quietly recorded back-to-back double-doubles (12 points-20 rebounds, 21 points-14 rebounds) toward the conclusion of his rookie year. How will he kick off his sophomore season?

Joel Brigham: Gorgui Dieng, Minnesota Timberwolves. The overwhelming majority of last year’s best rookies were (and still are) housed in the Eastern Conference, with Dieng only one of two Western Conference players to make either of the NBA All-Rookie teams. Dieng had some huge games in the second half of last season, and with Kevin Love now out of the picture he’ll get plenty of minutes to build on his success.

Moke Hamilton: Trey Burke, Utah Jazz. I absolutely loved what I saw from Trey Burke last season. He has a bright future in this league as a point guard, which makes the drafting of Dante Exum a bit more questionable, but that’s a discussion for another day. Steven Adams of the Oklahoma City Thunder may be a close second here, but I’m taking Burke.

 

The Sleeper Team

Lang Greene: Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets are a team to watch in the Western Conference this season. The franchise was derailed by a plethora of injuries last season, but heading into training camp should be in much better shape. There’s plenty of depth and talent in Denver, so keep an eye on this team.

Nate Duncan: New Orleans Pelicans. I stated the Pels’ best case was 53 wins in our season preview (along with my reasoning), and if they stay healthy they can get close to that level. With Anthony Davis and Omer Asik, the defense should be outstanding after ranking in the bottom quartile a season ago.

Jessica Camerato: Portland Trail Blazers. The Portland Trail Blazers were one of the feel-good stories of the playoffs last season. Now is their time to show they are legitimate contenders, not just a look-how-far-they-made-it fluke. Behind Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, that is a very doable mission.

Joel Brigham: New Orleans Pelicans. While it’s true that they play in the toughest division in basketball, the Pelicans are sure to seriously improve on their 34-48 record from a year ago. Anthony Davis is primed to take a huge leap this season as a legitimate MVP candidate, and the addition of Omer Asik gives them arguably the most intimidating defensive front court in the league. The guard corps offers plenty of talent, as well, giving them more than enough of a chance to break through not only as a playoff team this year, but as a team that can do some damage once they actually get there.

Moke Hamilton: Dallas Mavericks. I feel like I’ve been talking about the Mavericks for the past few weeks. My taking them so seriously in the Western Conference assumes that Tyson Chandler simply had a bad season last year and that he will bounce back. It also assumes (much more safely) that Chandler Parsons will mesh with Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki. If this team still had Vince Carter, I would give them a much better chance of doing something special. For now, they have to hope that one of the key cogs of the San Antonio Spurs breaks down. With some good fortune, though, the Mavericks could surprise a lot of people this season if they themselves stay healthy.

 

Who Wins the Conference?

Lang Greene: San Antonio Spurs. As Ric Flair once quipped, “To be the man, you have to beat the man,” and this holds true in the Western Conference. The Spurs are the unquestionable top dogs. The road to the NBA title runs through San Antonio.

Nate Duncan: Oklahoma City Thunder. Given their ages, this projects to be the best combined year for Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka. Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams should have enough experience to contribute, and Anthony Morrow provides the deadeye shooting they have never had outside of Durant. Almost everyone important on the Spurs aside from Kawhi Leonard will be a year older, and the Clippers still don’t quite have the horses on defense. Despite the Thunder’s assiduous avoidance of the luxury tax and the concomitant cost-cutting over the years, I’ll pick them to come out of the West in a very close race with the Spurs and Clippers.

Jessica Camerato: San Antonio Spurs. The San Antonio Spurs have the fundamental talent and consistency to defend their title. Sure, their veterans will be another year older, but isn’t that what people were saying last season?

Joel Brigham: San Antonio Spurs. Every year I assume their time has come and gone, and every year I’m wrong. I won’t pick against them again until Tim Duncan retires.

Moke Hamilton: Los Angeles Clippers. At some point, the Spurs have to stop being the best, right? This may be the year. The Thunder, obviously, will be there in the end and there are scores of other teams out West that can win it. Choosing one is difficult, but I look at the talent that the Clippers have, the upgrades they have made this offseason, the coach they have patrolling the sidelines, the fresh energy of a new owner and the fact that they were closer to toppling the Thunder last season than the 4-2 series loss lets on and it’s clear that there is a case to be made for the Clippers. Things need to break right and they need to stay healthy but I simply don’t know what more they need to get it done, so they are as safe a choice as anyone, really.

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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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NBA

NBA Daily: Larry Nance Jr. Is Ready To Move On

At All-Star Weekend, Larry Nance Jr. talked about moving on from being traded, Dr. J and the love that Los Angeles still has for him.

Ben Nadeau

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At the end of the day, the NBA is a business and Larry Nance Jr. found that out the hard way when the Los Angeles Lakers traded him and Jordan Clarkson for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2018 first-rounder just a few weeks ago.

Naturally, Nance was due back at the Staples Center nine days later to compete in the league’s annual slam dunk contest. Although he would finish second to the Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, Nance was frequently reminded just how many fans he still has out on the West Coast.

“It’s either one of two responses,” Nance said over the weekend. “Either people don’t understand how a trade works and they ask me why I left, or, you know: ‘Larry, we miss you, come back in free agency’ and stuff like that. So, either way, they’re kinda on my side — I mean, I’m still a little bit of purple and gold.”

Over his first three seasons, Nance had become a familiar contributor for the Lakers, using his rim-rocking athleticism to carve out a steady role under two different head coaches. Before he was moved to the Cavaliers, Nance was on pace to set career-highs in points (8.6), rebounds (6.8) and steals (1.4). This statistical rise also comes in the midst of his field goal percentage jumping all the way up to 59.3 percent — a mark that would rank him fifth-highest in the NBA if he qualified.* Given the noteworthy change of scenery, his current average of 3.6 field goals per game could grow as well.

But as the Lakers prepare for a potentially crucial offseason, the front office remained committed to shedding salary ahead of free agency, where they may or may not chase the likes of LeBron James, Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins. In just three short years, Nance had quickly become a fan favorite as a jaw-dropping in-game dunker and an improving prospect on a cheap rookie contract, so his involvement at the deadline may have come as a surprise to many as it was for him.

“It’s been a week, so, no, it’s still kinda like: ‘Jeez, I gotta pick up and move right now,’” Nance said. “So, no, I’m not fully adjusted, I’m not, for a lack of a better term, over it. But it’s still fresh in my mind, it’s something that is still kind of shocking.”

Nance, for his worries, is now a key member of the James-led Cavaliers, a franchise that has won 11 more games than the Lakers and sits in third place in the Eastern Conference. While the Cavaliers will likely have to go through the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors to reach their fourth consecutive NBA Finals, James himself has reached the championship series every year since the 2009-10 postseason. With the Cavaliers’ maniacal mid-season reboot — which also brought in Rodney Hood, George Hill and the aforementioned Clarkson — they could be poised for an encore performance.

Since he was acquired by Cleveland, Nance and the Cavaliers are 3-0 and, just like that, much of the lingering narrative has been reversed. As the Cavaliers look to further stabilize their season, Nance figures to play a large part down the stretch, particularly so as All-Star Kevin Love continues to rehab from a broken hand.

Still, Nance knows that the Cavaliers will certainly face some speed bumps along the way.

“It’s a learning process, obviously we started out super fast, but there will be a learning process,” Nance stated. “Just like there is with every team and every new group, so we’ll figure it out and we’ll get past it [for the] playoffs.”

But before he makes his first-ever postseason appearance, Nance returned to Los Angeles in an attempt to capture a slam dunk title, something his father — Larry Nance Sr. — did in the inaugural competition way back in 1984. In that contest, the older Nance famously upset Julius Erving and Dominique Wilkins to take home the crown in a nine-person field. On Saturday, Nance paid homage by changing into a retro Phoenix Suns uniform to execute his father’s signature dunk — the rock-the-cradle throwdown that won it all 34 years ago.

“For me, [his highlights were] like normal kid Sesame Street or Barney or something. I was watching his clips when I was growing up, so, yeah, I see it all the time,” Nance recalled.

But when asked what he remembers the most about those distant memories, the second generation son decidedly kept it in the family.

“The fact that he beat Dr. J,” Nance said. “Dr. J is normally thought of as almost like the dunk inventor, kinda brought the dunk contest back — but, really, [I remember] my dad.”

Although Nance couldn’t replicate his father’s success in the contest, his emphatic, springy dunks indicated that the 6-foot-9 skywalker could be an event staple for years to come. In one of the best dunks all night, Nance pulled off the rare double tap — a jam so technically difficult, that he immediately told the judges to look at the jumbotron to make sure they understood what exactly he had just pulled off.

Nance, for his original acrobatics, earned a perfect score of 50.

Earlier that day, Nance discussed the difficulty in standing out amongst a field of explosive guards.

“I think the guys that are taller and longer have a different skill-set than smaller guys,” Nance said. “Obviously, if the smaller guys do something, it looks super impressive because they got to jump a little bit higher, or it looks like they got to jump higher.

“There are ways for bigger guys to look good and I think I’ve got that hammered out.”

For now, Nance doesn’t know if he’ll return to the dunk contest next season after his narrow two-point loss to Mitchell. Instead, Nance wants to focus on helping the Cavaliers in their hunt for the conference’s top seed and, of course, with James, anything is possible. But it’s fair to say that Nance, who nearly pulled down a double-double (13 points, nine rebounds) in his second game with Cleveland, has gone from a rebuild to a legitimate contender in a flash.

“At the same time, I can’t wait for all this to be done with so I can just get back to learning how to gel and mesh with my new team,” Nance said.

From the West Coast to the Midwest, Nance is clearly ready to make some waves once again.

* * * * * *

*To qualify, a player must be on pace for 300 made field goals. As of today, Nance is on pace for 252.6.

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NBA

Updating the Buyout Market: Who Could Still Become Available?

Shanes Rhodes examines the buyout market to see which players could soon be joining playoff contenders.

Shane Rhodes

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While it may not be as exciting as the NBA Trade Deadline, another important date is approaching for NBA teams: the Playoff Eligibility Waiver Deadline.

March 1 is the final day players can be bought out or waived and still be eligible to play in the postseason should they sign with another team. As teams continue to fine-tune their rosters, plenty of eyes will be on the waiver wire and buyout market looking for players that can make an impact.

So who could still become available?

Joakim Noah, New York Knicks

This seems almost too obvious.

The relationship between Joakim Noah and the New York Knicks hasn’t been a pleasant one. Noah, who signed a four-year, $72 million contract in 2016, has done next to nothing this season after an underwhelming debut season in New York and has averaged just 5.7 minutes per game.

After an altercation between himself and Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek at practice, Noah isn’t expected to return to the team. At this point, the best thing for both sides seems likely a clean break; there is no reason to keep that cloud over the Knicks locker room for the remainder of the season.

Noah may not help a playoff contender, but he should certainly be available come the end of the season.

Arron Afflalo, Orlando Magic

Arron Afflalo isn’t the player he once was. But he can still help any contender in need of some shooting.

Afflalo is averaging a career-low 12.9 minutes per game with the Orlando Magic this season. He is playing for just over $2 million so a buyout wouldn’t be hard to come by if he went asking and he can still shoot the basketball. A career 38.6 percent shooter from long distance, Afflalo can certainly get it done beyond the arc for a team looking to add some shooting or some depth on the wing. He doesn’t add the perimeter defense he could earlier in his career, but he could contribute in certain situations.

Vince Carter, Sacramento Kings

Vince Carter was signed by the Sacramento Kings last offseason to play limited minutes off the bench while providing a mentor for the Sacramento Kings up-and-coming players. And Carter may very well enjoy that role.

But, to a degree, the old man can still ball — certainly enough to help a contender.

Carter is 41-years-old, there is no getting around his age, but he can still provide some solid minutes off the bench. Playing 17.1 minutes per night across 38 games this season, Carter has averaged five points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting 35.3 percent from three-point range. Combining all of that with his playoff experience and the quality of leadership he brings to the table, Carter may be an ideal addition for a contender looking to make a deep playoff run.

Zach Randolph, Sacramento Kings

Like Carter, Zach Randolph was brought in by the Kings to contribute solid minutes off the bench while also filling in as a mentor to the young roster. Unlike Carter, however, Randolph has played much of the season in a starting role — something that is likely to change as the season winds down.

Randolph has averaged 14.6 points, seven rebounds and 2.1 assists in 25.6 minutes per game; quality numbers that any team would be happy to take on. But, in the midst of a rebuild, the Kings should not be taking minutes away from Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and (eventually) Harry Giles in order to keep Randolph on the floor.

As he proved last season, Randolph can excel in a sixth-man role and would likely occupy a top bench spot with a team looking to add rebounding, scoring or just a big to their rotation down the stretch.

Wesley Matthews, Dallas Mavericks

Wesley Matthews remains one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He provides positional versatility on the floor and is a solid player on both sides of the ball.

So, with Mark Cuban all but saying the Mavericks will not be trying to win for the remainder of the season, Matthews is likely poised for a minutes dip and seems like an obvious buyout candidate. Matthews, who has a player option for next season, has averaged 12.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.2 steals this season across 34.1 minutes per game this season.

If Cuban is true to his word, both parties would be better served parting ways; the Mavericks can attempt to lose as many games as possible while Matthews can latch on to a team looking to win a title. It’s a win-win.

Isaiah Thomas, Los Angeles Lakers

Isaiah Thomas’ three-game stint with the Los Angeles Lakers before the All-Star break looked much like his short tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers: up-and-down. Thomas shined in his Laker debut, putting up 25 points and six assists in just over 30 minutes.

He then followed that up with three points and two assists, and seven points along with five assists in his second and third games with the team, respectively.

Thomas needs time to get himself right before he can start playing his best basketball. Re-establishing his value is likely his top priority.

But will he be willing to come off the bench for a team that won’t be making the postseason?

With Lonzo Ball close to returning, Thomas will likely move to the Laker bench. Adamant in recent years that he is a starting guard in the NBA, Thomas may be more inclined to take on that role for a team poised to make a deep playoff run — there is no shortage of teams that would be willing to add Thomas’ potential scoring prowess while simultaneously setting himself up for a contract and, potentially, a starting role somewhere next season.

Other Names to Look Out For: Channing Frye, Shabazz Muhammed, Kosta Koufos

There are still plenty of players that can make an impact for playoff-bound teams should they reach a buyout with their current squads. And, as the Postseason Eligibility Waiver Deadline approaches, plenty of teams out of the running will move quickly in order to provide their guys an opportunity to find their way to a contender.

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