After cruising through last season to the second seed in the Western Conference, the San Antonio Spurs’ championship hopes were ended when Kawhi Leonard suffered a playoff-ending ankle injury in the Western Conference Finals.
Now, the Spurs look to gather themselves and attempt to knock off the Golden State Warriors this season. Most of the team is back for another run, with a few changes here and there. Can this group compete for a sixth championship in the Gregg Popovich era?
Let’s take an early look at the 2017-18 Spurs season.
FIVE GUYS THINK
While the rest of the Western Conference powerhouses were adding star players and key talents to their arsenal in an attempt to knock the Golden State Warriors off of their high horse, the San Antonio Spurs held their ground.
Aside from bringing in Rudy Gay, the same old Spurs captained by the stoic looks of Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard will enter this season looking to do what every team last season failed miserably at; beat the Warriors.
Unfortunately for San Antonio, the road to that seemingly impossible task looks a whole lot bumpier this season. With no real upgrades across the board for their squad, this may not be the year the Spurs have a chance at title number six under Coach Pop. But don’t expect the NBA’s pillar of sustained excellence to go down without a fight.
2nd place — Southwest Division
— Dennis Chambers
Nothing has happened over the course of the last four months to suggest that the San Antonio Spurs won’t be every bit as formidable as they’ve always been. Manu Ginobili is back. The team re-signed Patty Mills and Pau Gasol, while adding Rudy Gay to the rotation for some more scoring. Kawhi Leonard is a top-five player in the league, and it’s not like Tony Parker and LaMarcus Aldridge have been completely siphoned of their usefulness. This still is an incredibly good, incredibly deep team that still has Gregg Popovich as a coach. They’ll be a top-four seed in the Western Conference, as has become their custom.
2nd Place – Southwest Division
– Joel Brigham
Re-signing Pau Gasol and nabbing Rudy Gay were the splashiest moves the Spurs made this past summer, but at this point, nobody should doubt them or their ability to seemingly overachieve.
If Tony Parker isn’t able to return to pre-injury form quickly, it could threaten the Spurs and their ability to win the Southwest Division, but I think I’ve seen enough from the combination of Patty Mills and Dejounte Murray to believe that they’ll be able to hold the fort in his absence. Plus, we can rest assured of at least two guys on Popovich’s roster will reveal to the world that they are studs.
I’m sad that Jonathon Simmons will be wearing a new uniform next season, but am happy for him and the fact that he was able to turn his opportunity with the Spurs into a three-year, $20 million contract with the Orlando Magic.
It’s fairly easy to see the Rockets finding a way to outlast the Spurs and take the division crown, but with their compromised depth and the Spurs being the Spurs, at this point, I’m still betting on Popovich and Kawhi Leonard.
1st place — Southwest Division
— Moke Hamilton
Is this finally the year the Spurs take the small step back many have been predicting from them for half a decade? It could be, but you won’t see that pick coming from this pen until we’ve at least seen it happen once. The Spurs stood pat this offseason other than the acquisition of Rudy Gay – unless they have more moves up their sleeve, it seems as though they’ll look to challenge the Warriors with roughly the same kind of roster. They’ll rack up wins all season against inferior competition, as per usual, and the big questions will arise come spring time. To this eye, Kawhi Leonard is one of the best MVP bets available on the board.
2nd place — Southwest Division
— Ben Dowsett
Between the issues at point guard, Rudy Gay’s recovery from an Achilles tear, Pau Gasol’s age and the loss of Jonathon Simmons, I’m a bit concerned about the San Antonio Spurs heading into this season. I fully understand that the Spurs will likely find a variety of ways to be as competitive as ever this upcoming season, but this roster just feels outmatched by other elite teams in the league at this point. The defense should still be formidable, Kawhi Leonard may be even better with another season under his belt and LaMarcus Aldridge could bounce back and become more of a focal point for the team. But, as of now, it feels as though the Spurs are a step behind the Houston Rockets and even further behind the Golden State Warriors.
2nd place — Southwest Division
— Jesse Blancarte
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Kawhi Leonard
One name that will be a constant on this list: Kawhi Leonard. He is among the best players in the NBA and leads the Spurs on both ends of the floor night in and night out.
Leonard averaged a career-high 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.8 steals per game last season. Although he finished third in the Most Valuable Player award voting and third in the Defensive Player of the Year award voting, he had a case to win both awards.
He can attack a defense in a variety of ways. He can knock down the outside shot, drive to the basket and finish through contact and is one of the league’s best scorers in the pick and roll. Leonard also ranked third in the NBA in PER at 27.6.
Most Spurs fans will remember the 43 points he scored against the Memphis Grizzlies in the playoffs while knocking down seven three-pointers or the six consecutive games he had in January in which he scored at least 30 points.
Leonard has long been known to be a lockdown defender, but it’s possible his offense is nearly just as good as his defense, which is why he’s one f the best overall players in the league.
Top Defensive Player: Kawhi Leonard
As a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, it shouldn’t be surprising to see Leonard listed as the team’s best defender.
Leonard is tasked with guarding the best players in the league on any given night and he has proven to have more success than others in doing so. He has long arms, great athleticism and seemingly never gives up on any play.
It’s perhaps most impressive that Leonard can guard virtually any position on the floor. He can be matched up with the game’s fastest players on one night and then be asked to guard some of the biggest players on other nights. Whether it’s matching up against John Wall or Kevin Durant, Leonard can lock up just about anyone and has a legitimate case to be the best NBA’s best defender.
He ranked eighth in defensive rating (101.5), sixth in defensive win shares (4.7) and seventh in steals (1.8 per game). He had a legitimate case to win DPOY for a third consecutive year, but was voted third, instead.
Top Playmaker: Tony Parker
While his best years may be behind him, Parker is still a key playmaker for the Spurs. Sure, Leonard is the team’s best player and responsible for carrying the offense load each night, but Parker is still the point guard and is often the one initiating the offense.
Parker has proven to be a great penetrator over his 16 years in the NBA and can make a great pass to find an open man as well. His 4.5 assists per game last season led the Spurs as a unit. Parker simply knows how to feed the team’s key offensive players – especially in the post.
He may not be ready to play until January after tearing his quad in the postseason, but he’ll surely be a welcomed addition to the team once he’s healthy again.
Top Clutch Player: Kawhi Leonard
As Leonard proved to be the team’s top clutch player, he was also one of the best clutch players in the NBA.
The NBA defines clutch stats as the final five minutes of a game when a team is either ahead or behind by five points. Leonard ranked 13th in the NBA with 136 total points last season in those situations and shot 40 percent (38-of-95) from the field.
Leonard had an incredible clutch sequence back in March against the Houston Rockets. James Harden converted on one of two free-throw attempts to give the Rockets a 108-107 lead with 39.7 seconds left in the game. Leonard then brought the ball down the court, dribbled to his left and pulled up to drain a three-pointer to give the Spurs a two-point lead with 25.4 seconds left. Just seconds later, Leonard blocked a shot by Harden at the rim to seal the victory.
He also hit a game-winning shot against the Washington Wizards in December. He’s proven to be among the best in the league in these clutch situations and it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see him add a few more game-winning shots to his collection this season.
The Unheralded Player: Danny Green
Leonard often dominates the headlines when discussing this Spurs team and rightfully so. Even after Leonard, most will talk about LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Each player brings something to the table and are key contributors for this team.
One player that is often overlooked is Green. His stats last season weren’t flashy: 7.3 points and 3.3 rebounds per game while shooting 37 percent from three-point range.
But Green is still a key piece to this team. His shooting creates spacing to allow guys like Aldridge and Pau Gasol room to work and he is still among the best defenders in the league after earning All-Defensive Second Team honors last season.
He came up with some big plays down the stretch to help the Spurs to a 3-2 series lead over the Rockets in the playoffs last year. It might be easy to overlook him, but it’s clear that Green is more than just what appears on the stat sheet.
Best New Addition: Rudy Gay
Gay leaves what he described as “basketball hell” with the Sacramento Kings and joins one of the best organizations in the league.
Signing Gay has the potential to be one of the best free agency steals of the summer after adding him on a two-year, $17.2 million deal. He holds an 18.4 points per game mark over his 11 seasons in the NBA. While he may not put up numbers like that this season, he still figures to be another quality scorer for the team.
He reportedly met with the Spurs, Warriors and Thunder in free agency and ultimately decided to sign with the Spurs. With Parker out for the first few months of the season, Gay will take the pressure off of Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge on the offensive end.
Of course, health is a huge question mark with Gay as he’s just one year removed from an Achilles’ heel injury that limited him to just 30 games last season with the Kings. If he can stay healthy, he’ll be a huge addition to the second unit as a player that can still get buckets.
— Cody Taylor
WHO WE LIKE
1. Gregg Popovich
Popovich has guided the Spurs to the playoffs in 20 of his 21 seasons on the job. It’s a pretty remarkable feat, but the Spurs have become a team expected to compete for a championship each year while under his watch.
The Spurs have won five championships during his tenure and he has won three Coach of the Year awards to back that up. It remains to be seen just how much longer Popovich has left as coach, but it has been proven that the Spurs will be among the league’s best as long as he’s still there.
2. LaMarcus Aldridge
As the Spurs’ No. 2 man behind Leonard, Aldridge has had a solid two season run in San Antonio. Rumors regarding his happiness with that role aside, Aldridge still has plenty to offer the Spurs.
While some teams opt to move away from the mid-range shot, Aldridge is still shooting it and shooting it well. The Spurs have developed ways to get him clean shots and he’s knocking them down. Aldridge ranked fourth in the NBA last season with 3.3 made shots from mid-range per game while connecting on 41.2 percent of them.
The Spurs will continue to count on Aldridge to help Leonard carry the offensive load and it looks as though he’ll continue to deliver.
3. Dejounte Murray
As a rookie, Murray showed a lot of promise. Now, the Spurs will really get a good idea what they have with him as he figures to transition into a bigger role in his second year.
With Parker out for the first few months of the season, Murray projects to play more minutes in his place. It could be a welcomed sign for the team in order to get Murray more comfortable playing big minutes. He played sparingly during the regular season last season, but was asked to step in for Parker after he went down with his quad injury.
If Murray can continue to progress, it should be fun to see how he improves and if he’ll be a major factor this season for the Spurs. Popovich showed a lot of confidence in him by playing him big minutes in the playoffs and that should in turn help Murray and his confidence.
Murray has been in the gym working out with the likes of Leonard and Ginobili so we expect to see a big second year from him.
4. Manu Ginobili
We love the fact that Ginobili is back for a 16th season in the NBA. It almost wouldn’t feel like a Spurs season without Ginobili on the court making amazing passes, making defenders miss with his signature left-handed drive or hitting clutch shots.
While he may have averaged a career-low 7.5 points per game last season, he still has value to this Spurs team. He still has enough juice in the tank to put up a 21-spot in the playoffs (See: Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals) and even have a clutch block on James Harden.
— Cody Taylor
SALARY CAP 101
The Spurs stayed over the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap this summer, using their Mid-Level Exception on Rudy Gay (locking in a hard cap at $125.3 million). San Antonio isn’t close to the limit, comfortably under the luxury tax threshold of $119.3 million. If needed, the team should be able to use their available $3.3 million Bi-Annual Exception to add another free agent to the roster.
Kyle Anderson is eligible for an extension before the start of the season. The Spurs also must decide on Dejounte Murray’s 2018-19 team option before November. Next summer, San Antonio may be able to get to about $40 million under a $102 million salary cap, but that assumes LaMarcus Aldridge, Danny Green, Rudy Gay and Joffrey Lauvergne all opt out of their contracts.
— Eric Pincus
For a team that has made the playoffs in 20 consecutive seasons, there are understandably not many holes on this team. The team has the playoff experience needed to make a deep run, and had it not been for an injury to Leonard, the team may have challenged the Warriors for a spot in the NBA Finals. It also helps that they have arguably one of the best players in the league that can impact a game equally on both ends of the floor.
— Cody Taylor
Although Tony Parker’s best basketball is behind him, his loss will still impact the team’s point guard position. Patty Mills has proven to be a solid fill-in for Parker, but after that there are questions. It appears as though Dejounte Murray will start at point guard with Mills off of the bench. Can Murray develop into a capable starter? That will be a question the team will need to know as soon as possible.
Of course, having Leonard on the court helps, but will the team be able to duplicate its top defense from a season ago? They lost Jonathon Simmons in free agency to the Orlando Magic and Dewayne Dedmon is now a member of the Atlanta Hawks. Simmons was among the team’s best perimeter defenders and Dedmon helped control the paint inside. It may not necessarily be a weakness just yet, but a situation worth monitoring.
— Cody Taylor
THE BURNING QUESTION:
Can the Spurs make it past the Warriors in the playoffs this season?
It’s a question each team in the Western Conference is asking this season. Obviously, some teams have a better chance than others to pull off an upset against the Warriors, but can the Spurs make it past them? They certainly started off well against the Warriors in Game 1 of last season’s Western Conference Finals, but an injury to Leonard ended their hopes in that game. Even with a healthy Leonard, it remains to be seen how the Spurs would fare against the Dubs in a seven-game series and we’re not quite ready to say the Spurs would be able to knock off the defending champs given just how stacked the Warriors are.
— Cody Taylor
NBA Daily: Tank Tracker 2018
Basketball Insiders looks at the NBA’s race to the bottom as teams jockey for lottery position.
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.
Here is an ESPN graphic on how NBA Draft lottery odds change in 2019 pic.twitter.com/Jk8X7q0J3Z
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) September 28, 2017
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.
The Pistons have announced an update on Reggie Jackson's status. He's been cleared to begin light running, shooting and continued ankle strengthening exercises, and his progress will be monitored this week. No timetable for a return to practice.
— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) February 21, 2018
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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*To qualify, a player must be on pace for 300 made field goals. As of today, Nance is on pace for 252.6.