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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.

Dennis Chambers is an NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. Based out of Philadelphia he has previously covered NCAA basketball and high school recruiting.

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NBA Daily: A Little Bit Of Trouble In Paradise

Even with all their success, the Warriors’ most recent incident may suggest that there’s something ugly going on internally, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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It’s tragic to see an all-time team crumble from within.

When an empire falls because of its own hubris, it’s dead forever. Teams like the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant Lakers are a prime example of a fallen empire because of such. As the Lakers won titles year after year, the tension between the two of them became so palpable that their egos surpassed their talent, infecting their play on the court.

It was a shame that the dysfunction came to a head in 2004 because the Lakers had arguably their most talented team in the Shaq/Kobe era that year. Even with all the drama behind the scenes, they still made the NBA finals. We’ll never know for sure what could have been with the 2003-04 Lakers. What we do know was that everything blew up after that season because their superstars couldn’t stand each other anymore.

Nearly a decade-and-a-half later, we must now ask ourselves: Are we seeing the same thing happen to the Golden State Warriors?

If we’re basing this entirely off the incident that happened both during and after the Warriors and the Clippers squared off on Monday night, then absolutely not.

For those of you who don’t know, multiple Warriors – including Kevin Durant – got heated at Draymond Green after his attempt to be the hero at the end of regulation led to him losing the basketball as time expired. This forced the game into overtime, where the Warriors eventually lost. It was a rather questionable decision on Green’s part because, with all due respect to the three-time NBA All-Star, he had more reliable closers in both Durant and Klay Thompson to pass the ball to and he neglected them.

One thing should be made clear: Occurrences like these are pretty common. Teammates get in fights all the time, and not necessarily because they hate the others’ guts. They get into these little confrontations usually for the love of the game. Emotions understandably ran high after Green tried and failed to be the man as time expired. Certain things were brought up that are definitely worth going over, but this could easily be swept under the rug in a matter of weeks.

However, rumors of a potential Warriors’ self-combustion go all the way back to last June. After Golden State won its second consecutive title and third in the last four years, David West had this to say that caught our attention.

Perhaps not everything was peachy in the Bay Area. West was calling it quits, so there was no need for him to hold anything back. Still, since he wouldn’t elaborate, all he said at that time could be dismissed as mere gossip.

What we had then was smoke. Now we have fire.

Something that’s also got people’s ears burning has been Durant’s caginess surrounding his upcoming free agency this summer. We can’t take that as proof of discord because it doesn’t prove a thing. Everything surrounding Durant’s silence in regards to his future is purely speculative.

Or, it was.

As Durant and Green had their confrontation in the locker room, Green reportedly brought up Durant’s impending free agency this summer. That is very telling of what might be on the Warriors’ minds, or at the very least, Green’s. It’s bothering him that he does not know what Durant plans are this summer. While Green may not be the most likable player in the league, his concerns are understandable. The uncertainty of a team’s long-term future can easily rattle any players’ mind. Just ask Cleveland.

Green could have made a better case for himself had he not reportedly called Durant an expletive name repeatedly. No matter what conclusions you may draw from this, the fact also remains that -after they got all the dirty laundry out – Green was suspended for one game.

Before all of this happened, all of the talks about the Warriors’ possible breakup was a bunch of hot air. Now, we have confirmation that things have gotten a little uneasy.

It’s also a possibility that this one little quarrel is as bad as it gets. Perhaps Green just had to get his concerns about Durant out in the open, and the two of them will cleanly resolve their issues. If this winds up being the height of the tension in Golden State, then this entire matter will be irrelevant as the Warriors pursue their third consecutive championship.

It also sounds impossible that a team that talented that has experienced that much success in the last several years would get sick of playing together. Some may think that what happened with O’Neal and Bryant was just an anomaly, but in recent years, we’ve seen a few elite players opt to leave their original teams in spite of their success.

Just a few months ago, Kawhi Leonard decided he didn’t want to be the face of arguably the league’s most well-run franchise anymore. The year before that, Kyrie Irving was fed up with being the Robin to LeBron James’ Batman despite a championship and two other finals appearances. Should it be mentioned that King James himself left his two previous teams after making the NBA Finals four consecutive times with both of them? Maybe what we’re seeing from this is that success does not always breed happiness and/or loyalty.

Getting back to the Warriors, say this is the first in a long line of public incidents that will compel Durant to leave. That doesn’t mean the end for Golden State. They still have the Splash Brothers, as well as Green. Managing the team without Durant wouldn’t be easy, but they won over 70 games without him three years ago. They’d probably still be a good enough team that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if he left.

That is, of course, going off the notion that Durant is leaving this summer, which is by no means set in stone. As cliche as it sounds, we can only wait to see if things get worse from here for the Warriors.

But if things are actually as rocky as they appear, imagine what they could be like when DeMarcus Cousins comes back.

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NBA Daily: The End Of The Coach/Executive?

With the end of the Jimmy Butler saga official, it seems like it’s only a matter of time before Tom Thibodeau is next, and that could mark the end of the coach as lead executive run in the NBA.

Steve Kyler

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The End Of The Coach/Executive?

With the Timberwolves trade of Jimmy Butler finally complete, the next shoe to drop in Minnesota will be the fate of Tom Thibodeau, not only as a head coach, but as a lead decision maker.

Thibodeau and Spurs head coach Greg Popovich are the last remaining coaches with contractual control over their roster. However, Popovich stays fairly hands off on the Spurs roster leaving the day of work and planning to longtime executive RC Buford.

The NBA for years has been a copy-cat league, and the run of giving high profile-named coaches the team president title seems to have run its course with rather brutal results.

There have already been reports that ownership in Minnesota gave strong consideration to firing Thibodeau and his front office this past summer, but opted to stay the course.

It is believed that unless something special happens this season, Thibodeau is likely out at season’s end and the Wolves will look to re-tool their entire front office.

The issue that continues to come up with coaches as lead decision maker is the short-term, game-to-game thinking coaches need to have versus the long-term vision front offices need to have to be prepared for the future.

In most of the situations where the coach was the lead decision maker, not only were massively silly contracts issues, but draft picks and future draft positioning was often sacrificed for win-now transactions.

Much of the Jimmy Butler saga was tied to Thibodeau’s belief that waiting out the market would drum up better offers, and that even with an unhappy Butler he could win enough games to stay in the playoff hunt, ignoring the toxic culture that was bubbling up around the situation.

It has become fairly clear in NBA circles that the skill sets needed to be an effective general manager do not typically align with the skills needed to be a good coach. There have been a few successes in the dual role, but most have ended pretty badly.

A Big Free Agent Class

Not only will a possible 14 NBA teams have significant salary cap space this upcoming summer, almost half of the NBA is eligible for some level of free agency. Here are all of them.

The latest projections from the NBA peg the 2019-2020 salary cap to be just around $109 million, with the luxury tax line being roughly $132 million.

The cap jump won’t be anything close to what the NBA experienced in 2016 when the NBA saw a $24 million year over year jump, but there will be a solid increase from the $101.8 million cap this season.

With that increase, combined with a lot of the bad decisions made in 2016 expiring, many teams will have the flexibility to be players.

Current cap projections peg Dallas, the Clippers, Brooklyn, Chicago, Sacramento, Utah, Atlanta, the Lakers and Knicks as having the ability to pursue max level players in 2019 NBA free agency, with more than half of that list having enough space for a max offer and another non-max high dollar player.

Combine the expected availability of so much free agency cash with what’s shaping up to be an impressive 2019 NBA draft class, and this upcoming summer could be one for the ages in terms of teams being able to instantly reinvent themselves.

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NBA Daily: The Jimmy Butler Saga Is Over

Spencer Davies analyzes the effects of the blockbuster Jimmy Butler trade for both the Minnesota Timberwolves and Philadelphia 76ers.

Spencer Davies

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The trade call is complete and the deal has been made.

Jimmy Butler is officially headed to the Philadelphia 76ers. Former first-round pick Justin Patton is coming with him.

The Minnesota Timberwolves pieced together a package for Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless and a future second-round draft pick in return for the four-time All-Star forward.

The Sixers have assembled a brand new big three for the season early, while Minnesota nipped what could have been a potential yearlong distraction in the bud.

All in all, this could be a transaction that is doubly beneficial in the present and the future. Only time will tell who gets the better end, but we can take a look at the effects of the trade for both sides.

Timberwolves

At first glance, failing to acquire a first or second option in return for Butler isn’t the best exchange for a player of his caliber. Coming up short of prying a first-round pick out of Philadelphia is visibly even worse, especially when the Houston Rockets reportedly came calling with four of those on the table.

What we do have to remember, though, is that—for now—Butler’s contract expires after the season is over. Scott Layden and Tom Thibodeau weren’t able to ask for a king’s ransom back because of that, yet they still did a solid job with what they could do.

Covington brings a mixed bag as far as his skill set is concerned. As one of the most unheralded team players in the NBA, the 27-year-old is a hound on the defensive end that has grown more confident as he’s gained experience. His extremely bothersome length allows him to disrupt ball-handlers and play the passing lanes to get out into transition.

Offensively the usage is low, but he’s a more-than-capable tertiary option who can catch fire from deep on any night, backed by his career-best 39 percent three-point percentage on this young season. Covington will space the floor and add a versatility and toughness that is tailor-made for Thibodeau to coach up.

Off to a less than ideal start to the year, Saric should welcome a change of scenery with open arms. Some have speculated that playing with the Croatian national team may have led to heavy legs from the outset, as he was in a glaringly obvious cold spell. In the first 10 games, his true shooting percentage was 43.6.

The last three have been quite the opposite, however. Saric is averaging over 16 points and six rebounds per game during the stretch with a 67.1 true shooting percentage. Maybe the move to Minnesota will add even more fuel to the fire as extra motivation.

Considering Thibodeau leans toward veterans, it could be possible that the 24-year-old may not start. It’s not farfetched to think Anthony Tolliver could slide into the starting five at the small forward position knowing the coach’s tendencies. With that said, Saric might just be the perfect fit for the Wolves to start utilizing their bench.

Remember what Nemanja Bjelica did for Thibodeau the last few years as both a starter and second unit guy? Stretching out the half court game to allow others to penetrate is when Saric is at his most dangerous—especially when he’s a threat to knock down shots. There are certainly similarities between the two, so it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see the Croatian big man used in almost the same exact way.

Bayless has been around the block a few times, to say the least. The Wolves will be his eighth team in 10 seasons. It’s been difficult for him to stay healthy, as he’s only played 94 games since the 2014-15 campaign. He’s already dealing with a knee injury to start this current year off, too.

Once he does battle back from that, it’s possible Bayless could see some playing time. Again, going back to the veteran thing, Thibodeau loves to have experience out on the floor. And even if he doesn’t see too much action, he’ll be a great mentor and an influence in the locker room.

Looking at the contract details of these three players, Minnesota has a chance to control its own destiny. Covington is only in year two of the long-term deal he signed last fall. Saric’s team option exercised through 2020 means he’ll stick around for this season and next at the minimum. As for Bayless, he’ll be an unrestricted free agent at the year’s end.

With Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins signed for the next five years, the Wolves are working towards some stability. It is impossible to replace the talent Butler has, but, from where things began in October, this is automatically a healthier situation. Now it’s up to the organization to get the best out of their stars and rack up wins on a consistent basis.

76ers

We don’t need to go through the statistics to tell you how gifted of a basketball player Butler is. His reputation precedes itself—an in-your-face competitor on both ends, a specialist in the clutch, a master of mind games. Quite honestly, there’s no one else in the league like him.

That’s why new Sixers general manager Elton Brand went out and made the effort to get him. Up until this point, the team needed some kind of jolt. It wasn’t out of desperation, per se, but there’s been a clear regression from a season ago. In a division as competitive as the Atlantic, along with an Eastern Conference up for grabs, Butler could provide that extra boost to vault them to the top.

By landing a superstar and hanging onto his first-round draft picks, Brand successfully addressed the present and preserved the future—which also includes Patton, the 16th overall selection in 2017.

So how does Butler fit in Philadelphia? When an All-Star comes to town, somebody is going to have to sacrifice. It’s happened in Miami, Cleveland, Golden State, Oklahoma City and Houston, among some others. At one point or another, there are going to be bumps in the road. Whether it’s lack of touches, debates over who’s taking the last shot or something of the sort—it’s bound to happen.

It’s plainly obvious that Butler is a go-to guy. Joel Embiid is playing that role currently as it stands today.

We know Embiid hangs out on the perimeter at times, but Brett Brown positions him in the post early and often. Meanwhile, Butler thrives on getting to the rim on penetration and cuts as a slasher, predominantly.

Ben Simmons is the master of drive-and-kick, drive-and-finish in his own right. Does this mean Butler will be spotting up primarily as a three-baller in Covington’s space? They’ll definitely need somebody to take those shots and make them because the two guys they just traded put up the second and third-most threes on the team.

Wilson Chandler staying healthy is going to be a big factor moving forward. He’s still getting his legs under him, though the veteran seems to be getting back in the swing of things slowly, but surely. Mike Muscala’s role is going to quickly expand as well.

Veteran sharpshooter J.J. Redick is the obvious candidate to pick up the slack, as could rookie point guard Landry Shamet. At the end of the day, the responsibility of spotting up is for role players. Butler will do it multiple times throughout games. However, he needs to be touching the ball much more outside of that.

And you can bet he will. The Sixers are razor thin at the wing. They have Butler, Chandler, Furkan Korkmaz and maybe two-way rookie Shake Milton—provided he’s used at the three. Rest assured, Brand will leave no stone unturned in the search for depth and shooting in the coming weeks.

There have already been reports surfacing of Philadelphia targeting Kyle Korver from the Cleveland Cavaliers, which could ultimately be the best fit possible. According to Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated, a number of players on the Washington Wizards might be a fit.

That’s a separate conversation entirely. Speaking on this deal, the Sixers went for the big fish in the pond and reeled in an enormous catch.

How it will go from here—who knows? Evidently, Butler is open to inking a long-term contract with the franchise, but we don’t know the value of those words until pen hits paper. Regardless of what happens in the future, this is a great job by the front office and should pay dividends soon.

As you can see, both teams may end up winners in the case of this trade. The Jimmy Butler saga is over and everyone is moving on.

It’s about time.

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