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The Race To Eighth In The West

Basketball Insiders takes a look at who will likely secure the eighth seed in the Western Conference.

Jesse Blancarte

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So far this season, the Western Conference Playoff race has been tight. As of today, the eighth seed Phoenix Suns are six games behind the third-place Memphis Grizzlies, whereas in the Eastern Conference, the eighth seed Miami HEAT are 8 ½ games behind the third seed Wizards. To put this in perspective, the Suns, at 18-15, would be the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference, and the tenth seed Oklahoma City Thunder would be the eighth seed at 15-17.

The eighth seed in the West is currently being wrestled for by five teams. Though the season is still relatively young, the Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves have fallen outside of contention for the final Playoff spot in the West. There is enough time for things to change, but this article focuses on the teams that are most likely to be fighting for the eighth seed based on the current standings, assuming the top seven teams don’t encounter any significant setbacks.

Factors that are considered most significantly include recent performance, strength of schedule, the amount of road games to be played, tough stretches (e.g., back-to-backs, long road trips), injuries, and future performance indicators like offensive and defensive efficiency and net rating.

With that said, let’s take a look at which Western Conference teams have the best shot at securing the eighth and final Playoff spot.

5. Denver Nuggets (12)

Record: 13-19
Games Remaining: 50 (24 Home, 26 Away)
Remaining Opponents: +.500 teams: 25, West: 34, East: 16
Strength of Schedule: .522 (6)
Record Over Last 10 Games: 3-7
Efficiency: Offensive 101.5 (three-way tie for 20 with the Thunder and Bucks), Defensive 105 (22), Net Rating -3.5 (22)

The Denver Nuggets have had a disappointing start to the 2014-15 NBA season. The return of several players from injury, including Danilo Gallinari, J.J. Hickson, JaVale McGee, and Nate Robinson, the trade for Arron Afflalo, the impressive FIBA World Tournament performance by Kenneth Faried and a second year under head coach Brian Shaw were all reasons for optimism in Denver entering this season. But Gallinari has been inconsistent and is now out with a meniscus injury, McGee is also sidelined, Afflalo has been underwhelming, Faried has played poorly until recently,and the team has not shown any real improvement in its second year under Shaw.

So far this season, the Nuggets have suffered through three losing streaks of three games or more (the longest one being six after winning their season opener against the Detroit Pistons). To their credit, the Nuggets have had the sixth toughest schedule in terms of opponents winning percentage (.522 overall), but losing to weak opponents like the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers doesn’t help their cause.

The Nuggets open 2015 with a tough road game against the Chicago Bulls, and a home game against the Memphis Grizzlies. Then, starting on January 14, the Nuggets enter a tough stretch where, over a two week period, they will face the Dallas Mavericks twice, the Golden State Warriors on the road, the San Antonio Spurs, the Washington Wizards, the Los Angeles Clippers, the New Orleans Pelicans and the Memphis Grizzlies. The games against the Clippers, Pelicans and Grizzlies will be especially difficult considering they are all road games and are played over the course of four days. The only easy matchups in that two week span come against the Minnesota Timberwolves (who nearly beat the Nuggets in Denver on December 26), and the Boston Celtics.

Fortunately for the Nuggets, February opens with three road games against easy competition, including the Philadelphia 76ers, Celtics and Pistons. The Nuggets then have another road trip starting on March 15. In the span of a week, the Nuggets will face the Pelicans, Grizzlies, Rockets, HEAT and Magic. Assuming the Nuggets are still in range of the eighth seed at this point in the season, this road trip could be a critical stretch. It’s not likely Denver will be able to beat both the Grizzlies and Rockets on the road, but they should have a chance of knocking off the Pelicans, HEAT, and Magic.

But even if the Nuggets are in striking range entering the last few days of the season, they may still fall short. The Nuggets’ season ends with two road games, the first against the Clippers, and the second against the Warriors.

Another major issue for the Nuggets moving forward is that they have more road games than the teams they are competing against for the eighth seed (with the exception of the Sacramento Kings). So far, the Nuggets are 4-11 on the road (36.4 win percentage), including bad losses to the Kings, Knicks and Charlotte Hornets. The Nuggets need to figure out how to win big games on the road if they want to have any shot of securing the eighth seed.

Unfortunately for the Nuggets, their -3.5 net rating indicates that they are a long shot at best to make the playoffs this season. The Nuggets’ defense and offense are both well below league average, and the players continue to struggle with ineffective play, frustration over playing time and injuries. The quad injury suffered to Wilson Chandler, who has been one of Denver’s most consistent players this season, is the most recent setback and another cause for concern.

Standing 5 ½ games behind the Suns is a huge issue, which means the Nuggets will need to sort out their lingering obstacles immediately in order to have a shot of stealing the eighth seed away from the competition. At this point in the season, there is little reason to expect that to happen.

4. Sacramento Kings (11)

Record: 13-18
Games Remaining: 51 (23 Home, 28 Away)
Remaining Opponents: +.500: 26, West: 29, East: 22
Strength of Schedule: .522 (7)
Record Over Last 10 Games: 2-8
Efficiency: Offensive 104.5 (13), Defensive 106.3 (24), Net Rating -1.8 (18)

The Sacramento Kings opened the 2014-15 NBA season as one of the hottest teams in the league. Through Sacramento’s first six games, the Kings knocked off teams like the Trail Blazers, Clippers, Nuggets (twice), and Suns. The Kings have been up and down since their fast start for several reasons, including the loss of star center DeMarcus Cousins for several games due to viral meningitis, and the unexpected firing of head coach Mike Malone on December 15.

Since December 9, the Kings have gone 2-8 and are in a complete nosedive at this point. Fortunately for Sacramento, the Kings’ next three opponents are the Celtics, Timberwolves and Pistons (all road games). The bad news is that once they complete their four game road trip, the Kings face, over the course of 11 days, the Thunder, Nuggets, Cavaliers, Mavericks, HEAT and Clippers (all home games). To close out January, the Kings have one home game against the Brooklyn Nets, and six road games against some stiff competition, including the Trail Blazers, Warriors, Raptors and Cavaliers.

The schedule doesn’t get much easier heading into February as the Kings’ first two games are against the Warriors and Mavericks. After this, the Kings play four games in five nights, including a key matchup with the Suns on February 8. February closes just as difficultly as it started with games against the Clippers, Grizzlies and Spurs.

Sacramento’s next long road trip starts on March 4 and ends on March 14. Over 11 days, the Kings will face a mixed bag of opponents and only one back-to-back against the Magic and HEAT. It will be critical for the Kings to knock off the teams they are supposed to, while upsetting some of the tougher opponents like the Hawks and Wizards. However, the fact that the Kings are 5-8 on the road so far this season, with bad losses to the Magic, Lakers and Pistons does not bode well for their chances on the road moving forward.

Assuming the Kings are still in contention for the eighth seed by late March, they will have a crucial four game road trip, which includes matches against the Suns and Pelicans (who are both candidates for the eighth seed), followed by a home game against the Pelicans on April 3.

Working in the Kings’ favor is that their regular season closes against some easy competition (unlike the Nuggets who close the season against the Clippers and Warriors). In their last three games, the Kings face the Nuggets on the road, and the Lakers twice in the span of three days. But the chances of the Kings being in striking distance for the eighth seed by the end of the season are not great at this point. Cousins and Rudy Gay have been great this season, but the loss of Cousins was a major blow, and the fact that the Kings are playing under an interim coach (Tyrone Corbin) does not provide much reason to expect a late playoff push from Sacramento.

3. New Orleans Pelicans (9)

Record: 16-15
Games Remaining: 51 (27 Home, 24 Away)
Remaining Opponents: +.500: 22, West: 30, East: 21
Strength of Schedule: .535 (2)
Record Over Last 10 Games: 6-4
Efficiency: Offensive 106.4 (7), Defensive 107.3 (26), Net Rating -0.9 (16)

The argument could be made that the Suns should be ranked third on this list. The Suns just lost to the Pelicans last night, have played the 29th easiest schedule in the league so far (.460 win percentage of opponents), and are still figuring out how to best utilize their point guard heavy backcourt. However, the Pelicans get this spot mostly because of their surprisingly poor defense, injury concerns and lack of depth.

The Pelicans start the new year with two tough home games against the Rockets and the Wizards and then have a five-game road trip starting on January 12 and ending on January 19. Fortunately for the Pelicans, they face weak opponents like the Celtics, Pistons, 76ers and Knicks. Their toughest matchup of the trip is against the Raptors on January 18.

The Pelicans open February with two tough home games, the first against Atlanta, the second against the Thunder. They then face the Thunder on February 6 in Oklahoma City. These two games will be huge for the Pelicans since they are currently a game and a half ahead of the Thunder, who figure to keep pace in the West with the expected return of Durant from his recent ankle injury.

After February 6, the Pelicans don’t face any particularly tough portions of their schedule until March 19 when they go out on a three-game road trip to face the Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers (March 19-22). Three days later, they will face the Houston Rockets at home. Their last tough stretch will then begin April 4 and end on April 12. During that stretch, the Pelicans will face the Trail Blazers (in Portland), Warriors, Grizzlies (in Memphis), Suns and the Rockets (in Houston).

Working in the Pelicans favor is the fact that they have played much tougher competition than the Suns thus far, and are still just a game back in the standings. New Orleans has less road games to play, and less games against Western Conference teams. However, the Pelicans’ net rating of -0.9 is cause for concern. While New Orleans’ offense is performing well (7th best in the NBA), their defense has been a disaster. This is surprising considering that head coach Monty Williams emphasizes defense first, Anthony Davis leads the league in blocks, Omer Asik is a good rim protector, and Jrue Holiday does a decent job of pressuring opposing ball-handlers. The loss of Gordon, who has been a solid wing-defender throughout his career, and insertion of Austin Rivers partially explains the defensive issues, but not completely.

The fact that players like Rivers, Luke Babbit, and John Salmons play significant minutes is another issue. After Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Davis, Asik and Ryan Anderson, there aren’t many above average players on the roster (Rivers, Babbit, Salmons, Dante Cunningham and even Gordon have PER ratings well below the league average of 15).

If the Pelicans can’t get their defense up to snuff quickly, they will eventually lose pace with the Suns and Thunder for the eighth seed, no matter how efficiently their offense is performing.

2. Phoenix Suns (8)

Record: 18-15
Games Remaining: 49 (27 Home, 22 Away)
Remaining Opponents: +.500: 29, West: 34, East 15
Strength of Schedule: .460 (29)
Record Over Last 10 Games: 6-4
Efficiency: Offensive 106.5 (6), Defensive 104.2 (tied for 18 with the Los Angeles Clippers), Net Rating 2.3 (12)

On December 20, I wrote about the Phoenix Suns’ recent struggles and their dimming hopes of making the Playoffs. Since then, Alex Len has improved his play significantly and the Suns have won five of their last six games to fortify their hold over the eighth seed (however, they lost a big game against the Pelicans in New Orleans last night). There is no time for the Suns to dwell on the loss, however, as they face the Oklahoma City Thunder later tonight.

To start the new year, the Suns have seven games in 11 nights, including a four-game road trip where they will face top Western Conference opponents like the Spurs and Grizzlies. The pace of their schedule will slow down after playing the Grizzlies on January 11, however, after facing the Timberwolves and Lakers, the Suns close out January against the Trail Blazers, Rockets, Clippers, Wizards, Bulls, and Warriors.

Then, to start up the month of February, the Suns will face the Memphis Grizzlies, and Portland Trail Blazers. Things lighten up somewhat after that, but they will again play four games in six nights from February 20 through February 26 (including an important home game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on the 26th).

March starts out with another road trip, which includes four games in six nights. However, each opponent is a beatable Eastern Conference team (HEAT, Magic, Nets, Cavaliers). March ends with four tough games from March 27 through April 2. The first two matchups are at home against the Trail Blazers, and then the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Suns will then hit the road and face the Trail Blazers in Portland, and then travel to face the Warriors.

The Suns’ season ends with five crucial games from April 7 through April 14. Four of the five games are on the road against tough opponents like the Hawks, Mavericks, Pelicans and Spurs. Then the Suns finish out the regular season against the Spurs and Clippers, two games that could be the difference between making the playoffs or not.

Working in the Suns’ favor is the fact that they have less road games remaining than any of their competition, and their offense has risen to sixth best in the league. Defense remains an issue, though that may become less of a problem if Len continues to be a significant contributor. Protecting the rim has been a problem for the Suns all season, but Len provides some hope of addressing that.

But even with a 2 ½ game lead over the Thunder, the Suns are very vulnerable now that Durant and Westbrook are (reportedly) healthy. The Suns had an opportunity to distance themselves more from the Thunder earlier in the season, but now will have to avoid any major setbacks if they hope to hold onto the eighth seed. But with just a 2 ½ game lead over the Thunder after playing one of the easiest schedules so far, and with a defense that is below league average, the Suns will have a tough time fending off the Thunder moving forward.

1. Oklahoma City Thunder (10)

Record: 15-17
Games Remaining: 50 (26 Home, 24 Away)
Remaining Opponents: +.500: 29, West: 32, East: 18
Strength of Schedule: .486 (23)
Record Over Last 10 Games: 6-4
Efficiency: Offensive 101.5 (three-way tie for 20), Defensive 99.9 (5), Net Rating 1.6 (13)

Near the end of November, I wrote about whether the Oklahoma City Thunder could still make the Playoffs after going 5-12 through their first 17 games without Kevin Durant, and (for the most part) Russell Westbrook. By applying the Thunder’s performance last season to their remaining schedule, it appeared that the Thunder had a shot at making the playoffs, so long as they didn’t face any major setbacks. Not long after that, Durant sprained his ankle and missed six games.

However, Durant is set to return tonight in a key matchup against the Suns. If the Thunder beat the Suns, they will be just one game behind Phoenix in the loss column. The Thunder then face the Wizards and the Warriors. This is an important and tough stretch for Oklahoma City, which makes Durant’s return timely.

Then the Thunder set out on a five game road trip starting on January 18 and ending on January 25. On the road trip, the Thunder will face the Magic, HEAT, Wizards, Hawks and Cavaliers. This is another tough stretch for the Thunder, but with Durant back, and hopefully healthy, they should be competitive in each game.

They then return home for an easy home game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on January 26 before hitting the road again to face the Knicks and then the Grizzlies.

In early February, the Thunder have some big games, starting with back-to-back matchups with the New Orleans Pelicans (February 4 in New Orleans, February 6 in Oklahoma City). Two wins over the Pelicans would be a big boost for the Thunder, who have lost to the Pelicans twice already this season.

The Thunder then have a tough stretch of games starting on February 19 and ending on February 27 (six games in nine nights). Through nine days, the Thunder will face the Mavericks, Hornets, Nuggets, Pacers, Suns, and Trail Blazers. Oklahoma City then has a stretch of four games at home with three very winnable games against the Celtics, HEAT and Lakers. However, they face the Atlanta Hawks on March 20, which should be a tough matchup considering Atlanta’s recent play.

Then, on March 29, the Thunder have a big matchup against the Phoenix Suns in Phoenix after playing the night before against the Jazz in Utah. Following their match up in Phoenix, the Thunder have four tough games in a row, against the Mavericks, Grizzlies (in Memphis), Rockets and Spurs.

The Thunder close out the season with some winnable games against the Kings, Pacers and Timberwolves, but face the Trail Blazers on April 13.

Working in the Thunder’s favor is the recent play of Russell Westbrook, who has been a one-man wrecking crew recently. With Durant back, the Thunder should quickly improve on offense, where they are currently ranked 21st. Last season the Thunder were the seventh best offensive team in the league, and though they may not reach that level this season, they are certainly a top 10 offensive team with both Westbrook and Durant healthy. Coupled with a top five defense, the Thunder are primed for a strong push for the eighth seed. However, this assumes that Durant and Westbrook don’t miss any more significant time moving forward. Another significant injury to either player would make the Suns the favorite to secure the final Playoff spot in the West.

With early season injuries to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Suns, Pelicans, Kings and Nuggets all had a huge opportunity to outpace the Thunder and grab a firm advantage in the race for the last playoff seed. However, for a range of reasons, none of these teams managed to do so. Now, even though they are 2 ½ games behind the Suns for the eighth seed, the Thunder are primed to climb the ranks and secure a Playoff spot. Though in the wild Western Conference, where just a few games separate the top Playoff teams from the bottom, anything is possible.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Five Second-Rounders Looking For Rookie Season Role

Although far from guaranteed, there are five recent second-rounders who could work themselves into important roles in 2018-19.

Ben Nadeau

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After months of speculation, rumors and workouts, the NBA Draft and their respective summer leagues are finally well in the rearview mirror. With training camps up next, franchises can begin to flesh out their rotations and decide the early season fates of their newly-arrived rookies — even if their selection didn’t come with as much fanfare or hype.

And although draft day studs like Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III are nearly guaranteed to contribute immediately, much of the class’ future is still up for grabs — a statement particularly true for those that followed the first round. Whether it was a strong summer league showing or a picture-perfect landing spot, here are the five second round draftees poised to leave a mark in 2018-19.

Kostas Antetokounmpo, Dallas Mavericks
2017-18: 5.2 points, 2.9 rebounds on 57.4 percent shooting

Much as been made of the youngest Antetokounmpo’s controversial decision to come out this spring, but his faith was rewarded by Dallas with the draft’s final selection. Back in June, our Spencer Davies dove into Antetokounmpo’s time at Dayton and it’s not difficult to see why the Mavericks took a swing on the raw 6-foot-11 prospect. Over four games in Las Vegas, Antetokounmpo averaged five points, 2.5 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game on 58 percent from the floor — which, of course, is not eye-popping but could foreshadow a role moving forward.

Between Dirk Nowitzki, Dennis Smith Jr., Harrison Barnes, DeAndre Jordan and the ever-talented Luka Dončić, Antetokounmpo will not be called upon to carry the scoring load at any point. On a two-way deal, the Mavericks have the luxury to develop the Greek-born stopper in the G-League until he’s ready to make a difference — but for a defensive-minded Rick Carlisle, that day could come sooner rather than later. With Dwight Powell and Ray Spalding fighting for minutes at power forward, Antetokounmpo could be an option at the three, where Barnes has just Dorian Finney-Smith behind him.

For a franchise that ranked 18th in DEF RTG (107.4) last season and will strive for their first postseason berth since 2016, giving spot defensive specialist minutes to Antetokounmpo seems like a win-win partnership.

De’Anthony Melton, Houston Rockets
2016-17: 8.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.9 steals on 43.7 percent shooting

After missing an entire season due to an improper benefits scandal at USC, Melton serendipitously fell to the Rockets way down at No. 46 overall. At 6-foot-3, Melton has a shot to contribute on both ends immediately as an above-average defender and a microwavable scorer. During his Las Vegas debut, Melton tallied 16.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, four assists and a summer league-leading three steals across five contests — albeit at an improvable 38 percent from the floor. As a tenacious playmaker, Melton should get ample opportunity to impress with a franchise looking to avenge their brutal Western Conference Finals defeat last spring.

On top of learning from one of the best point guards in league history, there also happens to be little competition for Melton in the rotation. In July, the Rockets signed Michael Carter-Williams, a former Rookie of the Year winner that averaged just 4.6 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists in 52 games for Charlotte in 2017-18 — and, well, that’s it. For a three-point bombing franchise like Houston, neither guard fits particularly well in that regard, but Melton’s 28.4 percent clip in one season as an 18-year-old still projects better than Carter-Williams’ 25 percent mark over five years.

Chris Paul missed 24 regular season games last year, but the Rockets are still willing to head into training camp with a second-round rookie and Carter-Williams holding down the backup point guard slot — that alone says far more about Houston’s faith in Melton than anything else.

Élie Okobo, Phoenix Suns
2017-18: 12.9 points, 4.8 assists on 39.4 percent from three

Outside of Džanan Musa and the aforementioned Dončić, the Phoenix Suns’ Élie Okobo entered draft night as the most promising overseas prospect in the bunch. Okobo, a 6-foot-2 Frenchman, could feasibly become the Suns’ franchise point guard by season’s end. The playmaking 20-year-old has just Brandon Knight ahead of him on the depth chart, a formidable NBA point guard, but one that does not fit Phoenix’s current rebuilding plan. Admittedly, his statistics won’t jump off the page just yet — 2.3 points, 3.5 assists in four summer league contests — but the potential for Okobo is certainly here.

While it’s worth noting that Okobo didn’t score in three straight contests after his impressive debut, he appears to be a suitable backcourt partner with franchise cornerstone Devin Booker. Whether he’s connecting with a backdoor cut in stride or hitting difficult running floaters, there are plenty of positives to take thus far. With a postseason appearance looking unlikely for the Suns, it’ll make sense to give Okobo the reins before long — even if they can’t move Knight’s contract worth $15.6 million in 2019-20.

Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks
2017-18: N/A

Needless to say, Mitchell Robinson could be an absolute treat for the New York Knicks.

For much of the pre-draft process, it looked like Robinson was a shoo-in first rounder, with many speculating that he even received a promise from the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 25 overall. Once the first 30 picks came and went without Robinson — who elected to pull out of the draft combine in May — the Knicks were more than happy to scoop him up. Across five summer league contests, Robinson averaged 13 points, 10.2 rebounds and a competition-leading four blocks per game on 67 percent from the field.

On a team-friendly four-year deal worth just $1.8 million in 2021-22, Robinson already looks like a bargain. But beyond his first-round talent at a second-round price, there’s a real chance that Robinson can contribute for New York right away. Following the recent news that Joakim Noah will be stretched if the Knicks can’t find a suitable partner by training camp, that leaves exactly two centers left on the roster: Enes Kanter and Robinson. The 7-foot-1 prospect is a natural replacement for the departed Kyle O’Quinn, while the newly-minted David Fizdale should love Robinson’s shot-changing impact defensively.

Even if Robinson shuttles back-and-forth to and from Westchester throughout the season, he could still seamlessly slide into the Knicks’ rotation from day one.

Jevon Carter, Memphis Grizzlies
2017-18: 17.3 points, 6.6 assists, 3 steals on 39.3 percent from three

Earlier this week, Matt John put forth an excellent case for what should be a comeback season for the Grit-And-Grind Grizzlies — but there’s one second-rounder still currently flying under the radar. Despite a stellar final season at West Virginia, Carter dropped into Memphis’ lap and there are few that so elegantly fit the franchise’s identity without effort. As the reigning back-to-back NABC Defensive Player of the Year, Carter should split the backup point guard minutes with newcomer Shelvin Mack, if not more by season’s end.

The additions of Jaren Jackson Jr., Kyle Anderson and Omri Casspi, along with renewed health from Mike Conley Jr. and Marc Gasol, will have Memphis eying the postseason once again — but Carter will likely be a fan favorite long before then as well. During his lengthy summer league initiation, Carter pulled in 11.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.1 steals over seven games. Although his 35 percent clip from the floor could use some restraint, he won’t need to shoulder offensive responsibilities with the Grizzlies.

Carter’s hard-nosed style of play will enhance an uncharacteristically poor Memphis defense from last season, with his years of extra experience allowing the bullish ball-stopper to drop into the rotation from the get-go.

With franchises focused on their high-ranking lottery picks, many second round draftees (and their often non-guaranteed contracts) will never carve out a consistent NBA role. But from backing up future Hall of Famers to filling a hole in the rotation, it should surprise no one if Antetokounmpo, Melton, Okobo, Robinson and Carter earn some big-time opportunities in 2018-19. Last year alone, Semi Ojeleye, Dillon Brooks and Jordan Bell all quickly found their niche at the professional level — so who will it be this year?

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NBA Daily: Poeltl Looking Forward To New Beginning With Spurs

Spencer Davies looks at the under-the-radar portion of the DeMar DeRozan-Kawhi Leonard trade and how Jakob Poeltl is already embracing the change.

Spencer Davies

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One month ago, a superstar-swapping trade between the Toronto Raptors and San Antonio Spurs was agreed upon.

The deal—which once again sparked a national debate about player loyalty—sent a reportedly disgruntled Kawhi Leonard to The North in exchange for Masai Ujiri’s franchise cornerstone, DeMar DeRozan.

Longtime Spur and veteran sharpshooter Danny Green was also moved to Toronto, while San Antonio acquired a protected future first-round draft pick and 22-year-old big man Jakob Poeltl.

Remember, Poeltl was an integral piece of a talented Raptor bench that produced a better net rating than their starters, as well as nearly all five-man groups in the league.

While the majority of pundits have gone back and forth about who won the trade, few have mentioned the ninth overall selection in the 2016 NBA Draft. Being involved in the transaction admittedly caught Poeltl “a little bit off guard.”

But entering his third year as a pro, the seven-foot Austrian is embracing the change and a brand new start with one of the most well-respected organizations in sports.

“That’s one of the things I’m most excited about, just the fact that this program has such a big history in developing players,” Poeltl told reporters in his first media appearance since the move. “I’m really excited for the process. Gonna be a lot of work, but I’m looking forward to it.”

From what he has heard from players who have been a part of the Spurs in the past and those who are currently there, it’s an unselfish group of people. They consider it a family environment.

“Everybody is just in it together,” Poeltl said. “From the very top to the very last guy on the bench or in the gym. It’s really like a great atmosphere, at least from what I’ve heard. So I’m looking forward to actually experiencing it myself.”

As soon as Poeltl got to San Antonio, he gazed at the championship banners hanging inside of the gym and quickly realized the expectations he’ll have to fulfill this season are a little higher than where he came from.

“It’s crazy, it’s different,” Poeltl said. “Obviously in Toronto, we didn’t have banners like that. Like we’re on a good way there, but this program here has some tradition to it. Over the last 20 years been a great basketball team. Obviously, you can tell by the championships and all the accomplishments.

“It’s a little bit of pressure, too. Like we’re trying to live up to that. There’s obviously a very high standard here, so we’ve gotta come in and put the work in and really show what we’ve got on the court as a team.”

Poeltl hasn’t wasted any time in immersing himself into the culture. In fact, he’s been working out at their practice facility since he arrived and feels like there’s a “natural chemistry” already with his new teammates.

In the weight room, Poeltl came across the forever face of the Spurs and future Hall-of-Fame forward, Tim Duncan. The conversation between them was short, sweet and casual. Basketball wasn’t brought up, as that will likely be saved for another time when the season approaches.

Duncan still sticks around and helps in practices from time-to-time, but he won’t be there every day. Somebody else who will be, however, is Pau Gasol, a fellow international center that Poeltl looks forward to learning from.

Though those two will be able to give veteran advice and priceless pointers, Poeltl’s most crucial teachings will come from the Spurs lead general—Gregg Popovich. Like with Duncan, on-court discussions were not the focus of their first interaction.

“We went to dinner,” Poeltl said. “We didn’t really talk too much basketball. It was more just like trying to get to know each other, like a first impression. I think there’s more than enough time for us to talk basketball and really learn what the Spurs are all about on the basketball court.

“But it was a really good conversation. Like I really enjoyed it. He’s a very down-to-earth type guy for if you think about what he’s accomplished in his career. He’s really cool.”

Once training camp comes and the dialogue does take a turn towards the hardwood, Poeltl will be all ears. As it stands now, Poeltl’s niche is the hustle guy. He picks up the scraps, corrals offensive rebounds and dives after loose balls, but don’t pigeonhole “role player” to his name. He plans on doing more in San Antonio.

“I take a lot of pride in that,” Poeltl said. “I think I do a lot of the little things out there—set good screens, be in the right places, making good reads off of my teammates and making plays for my teammates at the same time. Obviously like for me, that’s my role right now and I’m really enjoying that.

“I’m working on my game every single day in practice and I’m trying to develop more offensively and defensively so I can take on more responsibilities in the future.”

Moving on from the team that drafted you to another can be difficult. Luckily, Poeltl isn’t coming alone.

“Obviously it helps to have a familiar face like a guy that I’ve played with over the last three years,” Poeltl said of DeRozan. “Like I know how he plays basketball, he knows me. I think we play well together.”

In the two years they have played together, Poeltl has noticed DeRozan fine-tune his game. Although he is first and foremost a pure scorer, his all-around offense is getting better.

DeRozan’s reads on the opposition are crisper, as are the adjustments he makes due to that. He understands when to take games over and has involved his teammates more and more with each season.

It’s no surprise that the four-time All-Star guard is coming to the Spurs with a statement to make. All he’s done since being drafted is improve and devote himself to his second home in Toronto. He hasn’t uttered one favorable comment towards the front office he feels betrayed him.

Witnessing the kind of player DeRozan is when he’s pushed, Poeltl expects we’ll see a whole other side of him unleashed this year.

“It’s a little bit scary, to be honest,” Poeltl said. “Because I know what he can do when he has a chip on his shoulder, when he gets that extra motivation. I think he’s gonna be ready.”

Poeltl doesn’t have quite that big of a score to settle with the Raptors.

He’s just ready to give his all to an organization in a blue-collar town that matches the kind of work ethic he’s had since he started playing the game.

“That’s kinda how I’ve been for my whole basketball career,” Poeltl said. “Just get the work done.”

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NBA

NBA Daily: Can an Anthony-D’Antoni Marriage Work for Houston?

Shane Rhodes lays out how the Carmelo Anthony-Mike D’Antoni pairing could work this time around in Houston.

Shane Rhodes

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It’s official: Carmelo Anthony has joined the Houston Rockets after putting pen to paper on a contract. In doing so, Anthony will join a gifted offensive team helmed by former Coach of the Year Mike D’Antoni.

Stop me if you’ve heard that one before.

Back in 2011, when Anthony joined the New York Knicks via a blockbuster trade with the Denver Nuggets, a younger D’Antoni was in the midst of his third year with New York. While he didn’t exactly have a sterling record with the Knicks prior to the acquisition (89-129 before), things improved little upon Anthony’s arrival in the Big Apple (31-38 after). The two butted heads constantly and, after just a year (and an ultimatum forced on the Knicks by Anthony), D’Antoni was out the door; he resigned from his position and pursued work elsewhere.

Now, together once again, questions remain about how their relationship and, ultimately, their offensive styles will mesh in Houston. D’Antoni has already come out and said things will be different this time around, but nothing is so certain in the NBA; what is stopping things from going south as they did for the Knicks, who, despite a bevy of talent, just couldn’t make things work?

It’s important to understand where things went wrong in New York in order to look at where they could go wrong in Houston.

From the jump, the two weren’t exactly the best fit. Anthony wanted to play the way he had his entire career — heavy isolation, high usage basketball — while D’Antoni’s offense was spread out, predicated on ball movement, and closer to what we see in the modern offense.

Those two styles aren’t exactly conducive to the success of one another.

The Knicks finished the season 42-40, going just 13-14 in Anthony’s 27 games with the team. The two continued to be at odds with one another into the next season until, after leading the Knicks to an underwhelming 18-24 start, D’Antoni resigned. While things improved under Mike Woodson in 2012 — Anthony posted the highest usage rate of his career while the Knicks won 52 games — they quickly devolved into disaster and the Knicks, once again, found themselves in a hole that they are still trying to climb out of.

Now, on to Houston. This isn’t the same D’Antoni; he has changed and so has his offense. While ball movement still plays an integral role, D’Antoni has put much more of an emphasis on isolation plays in order to better fit the profile of his current roster.

The Rockets posted historic offensive numbers with James Harden and Chris Paul running the show, but did so unlike D’Antoni teams of the past. Gone are the days of the seven-seconds-or-less offense; the Rockets played at a pace (97.4 possessions per 48 minutes) that was middle of the pack, while their assist total came in at just 26th in the league, third worst among teams that made the postseason last year. Despite that, Houston managed to post the highest offensive rating (114.7) in the league.

While those stylistic changes should aid Anthony as he looks to rebound next season, they alone don’t make this the perfect fit for the Rockets. Anthony will never see the touches that he was once accustomed to in New York or Denver. He isn’t the same player he was five years ago, either; as his athleticism has declined, so too has Anthony’s ability to get past his defenders, leading to tougher, lower percentage shots that could sink the Rockets come the postseason.

The only thing that really holds Anthony back now is his own stubborn ignorance of those facts. He refused to adjust last season with the Oklahoma City Thunder because he still has “so much left in the tank.” Anthony posted some of the worst numbers of his career last season and, while Billy Donovan isn’t the offensive wizard that D’Antoni is, things should only get worse as Harden (36.1 percent usage rate) and Paul (24.5) dominate the ball if Anthony remains unwilling to change.

So, while his words may hold true, Anthony is no longer in a position where he needs to put the team on his back in order for it to be successful. Houston already has a well-established hierarchy, and Anthony is merely a column meant to buttress what is already in place. If he can’t come to accept that, the chance Houston is taking on him could backfire tremendously.

Still, Houston needs someone to eat the minutes vacated by the departure of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute in free agency. While he may not be able to match their defensive exploits, Anthony is still more than capable of filling their shoes, or even providing an upgrade, offensively. That potential upgrade alone could make the move a worthwhile one for the Rockets, who came just minutes from dethroning the Golden State Warriors despite the loss of Chris Paul in the Western Conference Finals.

For things to truly work out, however, Anthony must be willing to accept a change in his role, a diminished one in an offense that isn’t hurting for star power or shot takers, but one that desperately needs role players. If Anthony can adapt, he could be exactly what they need to challenge the Warriors. If not, Anthony’s arrival could blow up in D’Antoni’s face just as it did with the Knicks.

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