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Sacramento Kings 2017-18 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders continues our season preview series with the new-look Sacramento Kings.

Basketball Insiders

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The Sacramento Kings are in the midst of an 11-year playoff drought, which is very unlikely to end this upcoming season. Last season’s team was built around DeMarcus Cousins, a lot of veterans and a few younger players – a group that was not talented or deep enough to have a realistic chance of earning a playoff seed in the deep western conference. Vlade Divac, vice president of basketball operations and general manager of the Kings, traded Cousins during All-Star weekend to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, a 2017 first-round pick and a 2017 second-rounder.

Now that the Kings have moved on from Cousins, the team can start focusing on bolstering and developing its younger players. The Kings signed veterans George Hill, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter to significant contracts, who will likely serve as the team’s veteran leaders. The team is also bringing in De’Aaron Fox, Frank Mason, Harry Giles, Justin Jackson and Bogdan Bogdanovic. However, despite adding a lot of young talent and quality veterans, the Kings are still a long way from being a true playoff contender.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

I like the Kings a whole lot more than I did a year ago, but that still doesn’t change their standing in the Pacific Division, apparently. No rebuilding team makes a massive jump in the first full year of the rebuild, though, so some growing pains are to be expected from what is pretty easily the slickest batch of rookies in the league this year outside of Philadelphia. There are vets on this roster, too, which should help stack a few more wins on the season, but they aren’t ready for the playoffs just yet, no matter the injection of talent. Check back in two or three years.

5th Place — Pacific Division

– Joel Brigham

The Kings have quietly done a solid job of reassembling their core in their post-DeMarcus Cousins days, and they could also quietly be in line for a few more wins this year than we normally expect from a Sacramento franchise. Solid core pieces like Buddy Hield, Willie Cauley-Stein and Skal Labissiere are joined by Kentucky standout De’Aaron Fox plus UNC upperclassman Justin Jackson – and on top of that, the Kings went out and got veterans in George Hill and Zach Randolph. Combine all these with some decent role players like Garrett Temple, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kosta Koufos, and at the very least it seems like the Kings won’t be in direct contention for the cellar in their division or the conference. How many games they win will depend in part on the health of guys like Hill and Randolph, and on whether they’re in a position to tank later on in the season, but they seem like a near-lock for third in the Pacific Division for the third straight year.

3rd place — Pacific Division

– Ben Dowsett

For as long as we can remember, all the Kings seemed to have going for them was DeMarcus Cousins. In their first full season without him, it’s almost impossible to think that their prospects could be better than they ever were with him. Call it crazy, but I like what I see in Sacramento. I’ve been high on Buddy Hield for a long, long time and have similarly high expectations of De’Aaron Fox.

Vince Carter, Zach Randolph and George Hill are a trio of veterans that will fit in nicely with a group of youngsters that includes Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and Justin Jackson. If Harry Giles becomes an everyday contributor, the Kings just might be in business.

Even without Chris Paul, the Clippers should be able to keep a hold on the second spot in the Pacific Division. The Suns will likely pick up the rear while the Kings and Lakers battle for the third and fourth spots. At this point, I’d give the benefit of the doubt to the Lakers, only because I think they have the more talented players of the bunch. However, I do think that the days of the Kings being a laughingstock are over. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and surprisingly, it looks brighter than it ever did with DeMarcus Cousins.

4th Place — Pacific Division

– Moke Hamilton

Generally depicted as the laughingstock of the NBA, the Sacramento Kings actually have some promise heading into this season for the first time in a long time.

After hitting what appear to be home runs in June’s draft with De’Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson and Harry Giles, the Kings have a slew of youngsters with big time upside. Their 2017 draft haul, which also includes former Naismith Player of the Year Frank Jackson, accompanies the likes of Buddy Hield, Skal Labissiere, and Willie Cauley-Stein as under-25 talent on their roster.

However, even with the signings of proven veterans like George Hill, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter, the Kings won’t be much more than regular season feisty this season. Barring some rapid progression amongst their young guys, Sacramento will be on the outside looking in of the playoff picture. But, the old heads should do their part in helping bring along what appears to be a large batch of young talent for the next era of Kings basketball.

Next season still appears to be pretty dim in Sacramento, but the long-term future looks bright.

3rd place — Pacific Division

– Dennis Chambers

The Kings finally decided to move on from DeMarcus Cousins and, surprisingly, the long term future suddenly looks rather bright in Sacramento. De’Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson, Harry Giles, Buddy Hield, Skal Labissiere and Willie Cauley-Stein make an interesting mix of young talent that should improve with the guidance of veterans like Hill, Carter and Randolph. The Kings made an interesting move by bringing in three expensive veterans. Sacramento could have brought in solid veteran personalities who cost less and wouldn’t require as much playing time, which would have allowed the Kings to maintain more financial flexibility. The young players would have had more time on the court and the Kings could have extracted extra assets from teams looking to dump salary. However, the Kings did well to bring in more veteran leaders and could ultimately move them in deals if contending teams are looking for that last piece to get over the hump. This year’s Kings aren’t going to make the playoffs, but the future is brighter than it has been in some time.

4th place — Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Zach Randolph

Randolph has been in the NBA since 2001 and is no longer capable of scoring 23 points per game like he could earlier in his career. However, entering his 18th NBA season, Randolph is still one of the most skill offensive big men in the league and is able to score in bunches. From backing opponents down in the post, sweeping across the lane for a hook or knocking down a 15-footer with a hand in his face, Randolph is a versatile offensive weapon that has been tormenting defenders for nearly two decades. Randolph will likely play fewer minutes this season than he has in the past, but he scored 20.7 points per 36 minutes last season – the third highest mark in his career. Unless Randolph loses a significant step this season and someone like Buddy Hield takes a step forward, Randolph should be Sacramento’s top offensive player this upcoming season.

Top Defensive Player: Willie Cauley-Stein

The Kings have a surprisingly high amount of capable defensive players, but Willie Cauley-Stein has the best tools to be a premier defensive player. At age 24, Cauley-Stein has the length and athleticism to be a high-impact defensive anchor at center. Cauley-Stein’s rebounding numbers are problematic and is something he is certainly going to have to address. But his mobility, timing and ability to even check wing players on the perimeter make him a versatile defender who could hit another stage as he continues to develop and gain experience.

Top Playmaker: George Hill

George Hill has never been an elite playmaker or passer, but he is the best the playmaker the Kings have this upcoming season. Hill is a strong ball handler who can often take his opponents off the dribble and attack the rim effectively. Hill is good at drawing in help defenders and finding open teammates either cutting to the basket or open behind the three-point line. Hill found a nice chemistry with his Utah Jazz teammates, often finding cutters like Gordon Hayward under the basket or bigs like Rudy Gobert or Derrick Favors for lobs. Hill has a much different cast of supporting talent to work with this upcoming season, but he still should be able to generate the same kind of opportunities in Sacramento that he did in Utah.

Top Clutch Player: Vince Carter

Vince Carter is now 40 years old and isn’t the high-flying dunk machine he once was. But Carter has aged like a fine wine and is still capable of knocking down three-pointers and hitting big shots in big moments. Earlier in his career, Carter made a number of difficult game-winning shots, including a few incredible dunks. Carter can’t jump over his opponents anymore or create the same level of separation in isolation situations. But if Kings head coach Dave Joerger can design some plays to get Carter an open shot in big moments, that will probably be about as good of a result as the Kings could hope for with the game on the line.

The Unheralded Player: Garrett Temple

Garrett Temple is a solid shooting guard who do a little bit of everything. He is a good shooter who can play off the ball, knock down three-pointers and make crisp passes when he isn’t open. However, if the Kings need him to play the point guard position for a few minutes here and there, he can do that as well. He is also a strong defensive wing that can slow down some of the better wing scorers in the NBA. Temple isn’t going to lock opponents down the way Kawhi Leonard can, but he is an underrated defender and should provide nice wing depth for the Kings this upcoming season.

Best New Addition: De’Aaron Fox

The Kings are bringing in several new players (Carter, Hill, Randolph, Frank Mason, Harry Giles, Justin Jackson, Bogdan Bogdanovic), but Fox is the most significant addition of them all. Selected with the fifth overall pick in this year’s draft, Fox is positioned to be the Kings’ point guard of the future. In one season at Kentucky, Fox averaged 16.7 points, 4.6 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 1.5 steals in 29.6 minutes per game. Fox was selected to the First-team All-SEC, SEC All-Freshman Team and also won SEC Tournament MVP award.

Fox struggles with his shooting and will need to have a few shooters to space the floor for him in order to make the most of his significant skill set. With the right lineups, Fox could make a nice impact as the backup point guard for the Kings this season. With Hill serving as a mentor, Fox projects to be a big time contributor for Sacramento for years to come.

– Jesse Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Skal Labissiere

Labissiere is incredibly raw but has enormous potential. At 6-foot-11 with a huge wingspan, Skal has potential to be an impact player on both ends of the court. He needs to fill out his frame and needs to get a better overall feel for the game, but he has star potential. Worst case scenario, Skal becomes a floor-running big who creates easy scoring opportunities in the open court and off of lobs. Best case, he maximizes his notable skill set and physical tools and becomes a complete player on both ends of the court and a matchup nightmare in general. Nothing is certain with Skal, but his potential is tantalizing.

2. De’Aaron Fox

A crafty point guard with a versatile skill set and decent shooting mechanics, Fox has the makings of a future franchise point guard. He’s too slender to effectively guard the league’s best point guards on a nightly basis, but he should put on size over time. If he straightens out his shaky jumper and becomes an effective floor general, he could be the Kings’ long term solution at point guard.

3. Buddy Hield

Hield has been chastised for being the foundational piece in the Cousins trade, but he came on in a big way at the end of last season. His shooting comes and goes, but when Hield is on, he’s a tough cover. He’s not an elite athlete, but seems more than capable of using his size and craftiness to create space from some of the better wing defenders in the league. Hield also has some ball handling skills and can offer up some spot minutes as a playmaker. Hield may never get to the point where he should have been the foundational piece in a trade for Cousins, but that’s not the standard he should be held to. If Hield can become a lights out shooter and consistent defender, he will be a valuable long term member of the Kings.

4. George Hill

Hill comes at a steep price, but he is a very solid veteran point guard who can guide Fox in his development. Hill has some injury concerns, but if he stays healthy and plays up to his usual standard, he could become nice trade bait at some point in the future. The Kings invested a great deal into Hill, which limits what they can do with their cap space in the short term. But if Hill becomes a unifying leader for the Kings, that will be more significant than whatever he may produce on the court in the short term.

– Jesse Blancarte

SALARY CAP 101

The Kings invested in George Hill, Zach Randolph, Vince Carter and rookie Bogdan Bogdanovic with most of their cap room. Bogdanovic is the third-highest paid player on the team, earning roughly $9 million a season for three years. Sacramento still has up to $4.3 million in cap space along with their Room Exception for another $4.3 million, but the roster is currently full with 15 guaranteed players.

Assuming the team picks up options on Willie Cauley-Stein, Buddy Hield, Georgios Papagiannis, Malachi Richardson and Skal Labissiere before November, the Kings can get to roughly $29 million in salary cap space next summer, provided Kosta Koufos and Garrett Temple out of their contracts prior to July of 2018.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Youth. The Kings suddenly feature one of the more interesting and talented young cores in the NBA. Some of these prospects may fall short of expectations, but if even a few of them come close to maximizing their potential, big things may be in store for the Kings in the not so distant future.

– Jesse Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

Institutional stability. The Kings front office, including owner Vivek Ranadivé, have made some questionable decisions over the last few years. Between the draft and bringing in some talented veterans, it could be argued that the Kings’ front office is showing signs of progress. However, if Hill, Randolph and Carter fall short of expectations and have no tangible impact on the team’s culture or the young players’ collective development, we may start wondering whether the Kings were better off saving that cap space to opportunistically acquire more assets.

– Jesse Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will The Kings Stay The Course With This Young Core?

We’ve seen teams in the past enjoy their own unexpected success a bit too much, which led them to trading off key young pieces for veteran talent in an attempt to expedite their rebuilding process. The Phoenix Suns did this not too long ago and are still toiling in an extended rebuild. If the Kings win more games than most people expect, will they mortgage their future by shipping off young core players in exchange for more veteran depth? Doing so would be a mistake that could have long term consequences. The Kings had an encouraging offseason. Now it’s time to see if they have the discipline to stay the course.

– Jesse Blancarte

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Otto Porter Jr., Washington Wizards Aiming For Consistency

Spencer Davies has a one-on-one talk with Otto Porter about the Wizards’ up-and-down season and why they’ve been clicking over the last few weeks.

Spencer Davies

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When a team loses an All-Star point guard after dropping four out of five games while other teams continue to improve and climb up the standings, it’s usually a sign that things are headed south.

But the Washington Wizards have debunked that thanks to a commitment from literally every man on the roster to step up. Since John Wall went down with injury, they’ve won eight out of their last 10 games and are a half game back of the Cleveland Cavaliers for the number three seed in the Eastern Conference.

Why that is, is simple—there’s a balance.

“Everybody eats” is the mantra that Wall’s backcourt partner Bradley Beal came up with when the tide started to turn and the D.C. family has been living by it for weeks now.

The setback has definitely forced them to alter their style of play, but it hasn’t been a bad thing so far, according to Wizards head coach Scott Brooks.

“It’s definitely a challenge missing one of the best guards, one of the best players in the league,” Brooks said before Thursday’s game in Cleveland. “We’ve had to change definitely the way we play a little bit. We couldn’t expect our point guards to play like John. His speed you just don’t come by often.

“We have to play a little different. I think guys have stepped up defensively. We’ve played well. We definitely had some favorable games go our way with the scheduling, but the challenge is ahead of us now. We’ve got a lot of tough games coming up, but we just have to still keep playing and focus on each game.”

Otto Porter has been somebody who’s really kicked it into gear at a higher level and looks like himself again after a tough start to the New Year. Since January 30th, he’s averaging 18.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, and over a steal per game. On nearly 14 attempts per game during the stretch, he’s shot above 52 percent from the field.

When asked how Washington can best fill the void of Wall while he’s on the sidelines, he said it’s not possible to. Rather than focusing on that specific facet, it’s a responsibility of the group collectively to keep trending in the right direction.

“You don’t,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “I mean you just have to, next man up. You really can’t. X-Factor is everybody steppin’ up. With the guys that we have, it’s very simple. Just go out there and play for each other.

“Getting out in transition. Getting stops. Creating points. Threes. The ball going from side to side. That’s how we play. We goin’ through adversity, so we took the challenge.”

Mind you, this is a Wizards team that was once reportedly divided in the locker room. There were rumblings of disdain among certain players. Tweets, Instagram posts, and on-air interviews fueled the fire even more as the losses continued to pile up.

However, we all know the solution to any sort of rough patch is winning games. As soon as the victories started to come, the noise started to quiet down more and more.

“That’s with any sport for real,” Porter told Basketball Insiders after inquiring whether the negativity was overblown.

“I mean you gon’ have your ups and downs. You gon’ have that. But we’re gonna stick together no matter the wins or the losses. We’re gonna stick together. We’re not gonna let anything break us apart. That’s just how we feel.”

The All-Star break came at a good time for Porter, who admitted to Basketball Insiders that he was playing through with nagging injuries in the first half of the season and getting a week to see family and recuperate “was what I needed.”

In the meantime, he kept in contact with Beal, who was experiencing his first All-Star weekend in four years, except this time around he was selected by Team LeBron as a part of the big game.

“All-Star, he said he was mad busy,” Porter told Basketball Insiders of Beal’s hectic three days in Los Angeles. “That sucks ‘cause you know you really wanna—I mean All-Star is cool, but the guys all busy during All-Star. Seeing people, events, stuff like that, so you don’t really get a break. He enjoyed it though.”

Porter raved over the season Beal has had and what it’s meant to Washington. There hasn’t been a change in mentality at all, but the improvements are evident.

“He’s always been motivated,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “Each year he’s addingbits and pieces to his game every year that make him a threat and it shows this year.”

Another teammate of Porter’s that has taken on the challenge is Kelly Oubre. This month hasn’t been kind to him so far as a shooter, but taking the season as a whole, the third year forward is hitting a career-high 36.9 percent of his threes and averaging close to 12 points per game.

Not only that, but Oubre is always locked in defensively with an in-your-face method of guarding his opponents. It’s a physical style that constantly bothers opponents and most of the time, it works.

“He’s been improving,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “He’s been putting in a lot of work. I’ve seen him put in so much work this offseason on his shot improving his mechanics and it’s paying off.

“Aggressive defensively, getting his hands on a lot of balls, deflections, steals. That’s what we want from him every game.”

Brooks has rewarded Oubre and Porter’s efforts by giving them a ton of playing time, something that he doesn’t see changing anytime soon considering the job they’ve done with the extra load.

“They’re gonna have to keep playing a lot of major minutes and keep getting better along the way,” Brooks said. “Otto’s really steady, solid. He’s started to make some shots again.

“And Kelly, he hasn’t shot the ball well in February, but we need him to break out of that and start shooting the ball better. With Kelly to me, it’s always how he’s locked in and focused on the defensive end.”

In order for the Wizards to continue scaling the ranks in the East, it’s going to come down to consistency, a hurdle that they’ve tried to clear in past years and have a goal of leaping this season.

“We have to,” Brooks said. “Firstly, just takes that consistent effort to win games. This is not an easy league. Nobody feels sorry for you. Nobody gives you wins. You’ve got to go out there and earn it.

“I like the spirit of our team. We’re willing to accept the challenges. We know it’s not gonna be easy, but I like how we’re playing.”

Porter’s personal goal is to make it through 82 games healthy, but he agrees with his head coach about Washington’s top priority as a team.

“Right now yeah, it’s consistency,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “And just sticking to what we do, sticking to our character. We know what type of players we are. We know how to play the right way and play Wizards basketball, so that’s what we’re gonna focus on.”

So far, so good.

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NBA Daily: Tank Tracker 2018

Basketball Insiders looks at the NBA’s race to the bottom as teams jockey for lottery position.

Buddy Grizzard

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With the NBA All-Star game behind and the home stretch of the regular season ahead, this is the time of year when contenders contend and pretenders stop pretending. It’s time for the NBA’s annual race to the bottom with a crowded field featuring four teams from each conference with better odds of getting help through the draft than making a playoff run.

Although Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was fined $600,000 for public statements detrimental to the NBA for saying the Mavericks should tank, the assumption here is always that players play to win. Every year the NBA Draft brings 30 new first round picks with guaranteed contracts into the league (minus any players that opt to play overseas). That’s 30 NBA jobs that will be taken away from veterans and given to rookies, not counting second-round picks and undrafted free agents who will take still more jobs. Rank-and-file players are playing for their place in the league, not to help their team get in position to draft a potential replacement.

Here we’ll look at teams that are clearly out of the playoff race and factors that could impact draft position as the final stretch of the season unfolds. Below is a tweet from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski from September showing odds to land a top-three pick. This is the final season under the old lottery system (odds in parenthesis) before the new system takes effect next season.

Starting next year, the four worst teams will have nearly-identical odds to land a top-three pick. Since this is the last year in which teams dramatically increase odds of landing a top-three pick the more they lose, the race for lottery position could be as fun to watch as the race for playoff position. With a deep talent pool for the upcoming NBA Draft, the plot gets even thicker.

The Playoff Contenders

Before we look at teams that are clearly not contending for a playoff spot, we’ll mention teams that are out of playoff position but fighting to get in. In the Eastern Conference, the Detroit Pistons acquired Blake Griffin before the trade deadline and are only 1.5 games behind the Miami HEAT for the eighth playoff seed. If Detroit can get point guard Reggie Jackson back healthy — a big if — then the Pistons could get into the playoffs and constitute a scary match-up in the first round.

Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post tweeted Wednesday that Jackson has been cleared for light running and shooting as he continues to recover from an ankle injury.

Also in the East, although the Charlotte Hornets appear headed nowhere, it’s a veteran-heavy squad that will do all it can to claw its way to a playoff spot. With point guard Kemba Walker making a second All-Star appearance and veterans Dwight Howard and Nicolas Batum uninterested in building through the draft this late in their careers, expect Charlotte to do everything in its power to close the five-game gap with the HEAT.

In the West, although the Clippers moved on from Griffin, the team remains just one game behind the eighth-seed Pelicans with a 7-3 record in its last 10 games. The Clippers are another veteran-laden squad with too much pride to play for lottery balls. However, the Clippers’ hopes of being a playoff spoiler are complicated by the league’s hottest team, the Jazz. Utah owns a league-best 11-game win streak and sits a half game behind the Clippers.

Honorable mention goes to the Lakers, which sit a dismal eight games behind the Pelicans in the Western Conference standings. The Lakers have almost no chance to make the playoffs but won’t be participating in this season’s tank-a-thon since either the 76ers or Celtics will own its first-round draft pick. L.A. traded two future firsts for Steve Nash in 2012 but has yet to convey the final pick due to protections in 2015, 2016 and 2017. The pick will go to Philly if it’s first overall or lower than fifth, but will otherwise convey to the Celtics. The 76ers used the pick with added protections to move up last year and draft Markelle Fultz with the first overall pick.

Additionally, the Nets do not make the list since the Cavaliers own their unprotected first round pick from the Kyrie Irving trade with the Celtics. The Nets aren’t tanking, they just lack the talent to compete and currently hold the league’s fifth-worst record.

New York Knicks, 24-36

The Knicks are the last entrant into the NBA’s annual race to the bottom owing to Kristaps Porzingis’ season-ending ACL injury. Prior to the injury, the Knicks were doing everything in the team’s power to start the post-Carmelo Anthony era with a playoff appearance. With Porzingis now sidelined for an extended period, the goal shifts to improving the talent around him.

Chicago Bulls, 20-38

The Bulls recently announced that Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba will replace veterans Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday in the starting lineup. Both received a DNP-CD in Thursday’s one-point loss to the 76ers. This is a team in naked tank mode, but it has the most games remaining against other teams on this list. Chicago has its tanking work cut out for it, but the recent lineup decisions show that the Bulls are serious about getting the job done.

Memphis Grizzlies, 18-38

While the Bulls are shameless in pursuit of lottery balls, you can’t blame the Grizzlies for the horrendous injury luck that put the team in this position. It’s a lost season for Memphis, and help in the lottery could be difficult to find since only the Bulls and Magic have more games remaining against teams on this list.

Orlando Magic, 18-40

The Magic have the second-worst record in the East but are matched by the Kings and Mavericks. Counting the Grizzlies, this makes six teams with only 18 wins. This is the heart of the tanking field, and the Magic fully committed when it traded starting point guard Elfrid Payton, a former lottery pick, for a future second-round pick. Orlando has a six-game stretch against teams in playoff contention that should help, but it also has a large number of games remaining against lottery contenders.

Sacramento Kings, 18-40

The Kings did well to get out of the $19 million owed to George Hill next season in a pre-deadline trade with the Cavaliers. Losing the team’s starting point guard also has the benefit of more minutes to develop De’Aaron Fox while upping the odds of adding a quality piece next to him in the draft. Unfortunately, the Kings had a recent stretch of four wins in ten games.

Dallas Mavericks, 18-40

No caveats or disclaimers are needed here since Cuban has gone public with his desire to lose as many games as possible. Aiding Cuban’s cause is that the Mavs are tied with the Hawks and Suns for fewest remaining games against teams on this list.

Atlanta Hawks, 18-41

Equal to the Suns for the league’s worst record, the Hawks come out of the All-Star break in pole position for the Tank 500. However, the team is 4-6 in the last 10 games and lost a ton of close games this year. The Hawks are literally better than the record suggests, and join the Magic and Kings by insisting on shooting themselves in the foot with late-season wins that could poison the lottery well.

As NBA.com’s K.L. Chouinard noted, the Hawks have a net rating of +9.1 in minutes Ersan Ilyasova and Dewayne Dedmon share. Only John Collins and Isaiah Taylor have out-performed this combo among two-man units that have shared at least 200 minutes.

Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer wisely opted to limit the pair to 227 minutes together this season, but the Hawks seem like a team in danger of tumbling out of position for a top-three pick despite how well-positioned the team is currently.

Phoenix Suns, 18-41

When it comes to the gold standard in tanking, nobody tops the Suns. The team shares a league-worst record with the Hawks, has a tough remaining schedule and is showing how it’s done with a 1-9 record in its last 10 games. With the team’s litany of poor draft selections and disastrous trades and free agency decisions, the lottery is the only place Phoenix can turn to for improvement. The prediction here is that nobody out-tanks the Suns the rest of the way.

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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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