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The ‘Shop: Wizards, Greg Monroe and Brow

Should the Wizards trade John Wall? What’s next for Greg Monroe? Can Anthony Davis stay healthy?

Jabari Davis

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Allow us to welcome this week’s special guest, Basketball Insiders’ own Alex Kennedy into the ‘Shop. Alex called his shot in advance and already let Lang know that he had better bring his A game, so let’s go ahead and strap Sir Managing Editor into the chair for this week’s discussion. We’ll be back later this week with another ‘Shop discussion on Saturday.

 

Jabari: Alex, thanks for joining the mix this week. Let’s go ahead and start off in Washington, because I’d love to get your opinion on why they continue to struggle and whether you think it will ultimately work out for John Wall as a Wizard? Scott Brooks was brought in specifically because of his experience with turning things around in Oklahoma City, but part of me wonders whether his star players will have quite as much patience with that process given they aren’t first- and second-year players as was the case when he took over the Thunder.

Alex: Thanks for having me, guys. After being on the editing side of these the last few weeks, I decided I wanted in.

The Wizards have been a huge disappointment for me early in the season. I really thought that the Scott Brooks hire would be great for them and they’d get back to looking like the team from two years ago that was so close to advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals.

But after this start, I really wonder what is going on with this squad behind closed doors. I didn’t think much of the reports about John Wall and Bradley Beal having beef when they first emerged, but the more we see them struggle together and then seeing Wall making some comments about it on the record, it wouldn’t surprise me if things are pretty ugly behind the scenes. That’s where having Coach Brooks can help, because one thing he did really well in Oklahoma City was get everyone to buy in and create a family atmosphere as well as a winning culture. The question is, will he be attempting to create that environment with the team as currently constructed or do they make some kind of blockbuster trade?

Wall isn’t going anywhere. He’s a superstar on an excellent contract and you can build around him. Also, one thing that doesn’t get talked about enough is that he is friends with a TON of players. His relationship with Kevin Durant was well-documented, but what a lot of people don’t realize is he has A LOT of relationships like that with guys around the NBA (and in the college ranks). I used to do a ton of stories on top high school prospects and almost all of them would mention that they were friends with Wall or that he mentored them or that they viewed him like a big brother. And I’m not talking about this happening a couple times. It happened over and over and over. I’m calling it now: I don’t know who or when, but Wall will recruit at least one star to play with him before his career is over. He has the kind of friendships that lead to the formation of a super-team.

So, anyway, Wall isn’t going anywhere. But could the Wizards look to move Beal or Otto Porter or other key pieces? Absolutely. I’d be gauging interest in everyone but Wall and seeing what trade options are out there. Lang, what do you think? Do you think they should break up the core before the trade deadline in February?

Lang: Welcome to the Insider Shop, AK. Appreciate the visit. Before I get into the Wizards, let me go on record to say that you won’t be winning the Basketball Insiders’ Fantasy Football League. The trophy will be coming here to the ‘Shop. For the Hoop Freaks that don’t know, Alex is currently in first place in our league (yours truly is in second) with only one loss to date. When you get a chance on Twitter, ask Alex what team took away his 0. Ha.

Alex: Psh, it was a Week 1 loss and I’ve won 11 straight. I’m feeling good. Shout out to Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Ezekiel Elliot (it’s a two quarterback league). I’ll tweet out a picture of the trophy as soon as the season is over.

Lang: Back to the Wizards. No way they entertain trading John Wall, based solely on the strength of what Alex mentioned earlier: Elite player, reasonable contract and well connected/respected among his peers. That’s a trio of goodness right there.

But let me say this, playing Devil’s Advocate: That may be exactly WHY the Wizards should explore trading him. With all of those contacts, Wall hasn’t been able to lure any other elite guys into D.C. just yet. The Wizards’ roster is currently a collection of drafted players and band-aid type trade acquisitions. They’ve been unable to move the needle via free agency and if you look around the league, the contenders have been able to complement their drafts and trades with major free agency moves over the past few years. Let’s take a brief stroll through the major players…

Cleveland: LeBron James (2014)
Golden State: Kevin Durant (2016)
San Antonio: LaMarcus Aldridge (2015)

Heck, you can even throw in the Los Angeles Clippers’ retention of DeAndre Jordan last year as a major free agency win after they convinced him to leave Mark Cuban and the Dallas Mavericks high and dry. So while I know the Wizards won’t entertain the thought, with a team this disappointing all options should be being seriously evaluated.

Jabari: I can see where both of you are coming from, but think it could be somewhere in the middle if I’m “in the room” in Washington. To Alex’s point about Wall being a top player (with league connections – I’m thinking Boogie, by the way), I agree that you can’t just let them get away without exhausting every single measure to make it work. I also agree with Lang in the sense that you also can’t be totally myopic and completely ignore the warning signs of a disgruntled employee that means so much to any potential success you may have as a franchise.

So, here’s where, as a franchise, you have to have real and honest conversations with Wall and find out where his head is at. If it is a relationship that can be salvaged, then obviously (like Alex mentioned) you do whatever it takes to continue building around him. Trouble is, unless he’s finally able to attract a buddy or two (BBN stand up), I think you have to seriously consider all options before the situation winds up spiraling to a point where you are painted into a corner.

Alex: I see what you guys are saying, but it’s so hard to land an elite, face-of-the-franchise talent in this league. Unless some team makes an amazing offer that Washington can’t pass up, I’m looking at mixing up the supporting cast and gauging interest in everyone else before I part ways with Wall.

Lang: Staying in the East is another situation that is rapidly developing: What in the hell is going on with Greg Monroe in Milwaukee? Here’s a guy who was considered one of the most sought after free agents in 2015. He turned down offers from the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks in order to join the youth movement in Milwaukee with Jason Kidd running the show from the sideline. But it hasn’t panned out – I mean, like, at all. He recently had a four-game stretch in which he played just 17 minutes – combined. Combined, I say. Oh, and this includes a DNP-CD. Greg is seemingly in his physical prime and Bucks need help on the interior. We’re talking about a 15/8 guys when given minutes. I’m wondering, what went wrong?

Jabari: The Greg Monroe situation is peculiar for sure. Makes me wonder if bringing him in was a management/ownership decision rather than one Kidd was in favor of? Obviously, that’s just me speculating, but it seems odd that he’s getting paid so well ($17 million this year, $17.9 million next) simply to wear a dark jersey in practice and get up the occasional tippy-toes dunk on a random fastbreak here and there. Part of it has to do with the fact that Milwaukee’s defense seemed to suffer when they added Monroe and Jabari Parker into that starting lineup.

Parker has actually improved as a defender as he’s added a bit more strength and agility, but Kidd’s reluctance to play Monroe does seem to still be related to that side of the court. So, Alex, do you see a realistic landing spot for Monroe if they were to seek a trading partner? Realizing he’s a “15/8ish” guy as Lang mentioned, part of me wonders if the league’s continued shift in style and tempo make Kidd look at Monroe’s potential production as sort of “empty numbers” since they would come at the expense of the defense and perhaps even the preferred flow of the offense.

Alex: I think you just hit the nail on the head, Jabari: The league is shifting away from big men like Monroe. Milwaukee was an elite defensive team the year before he arrived, and they just take a huge step back on that end when he plays. Not to mention, teams are also going away from back-to-the-basket bigs who can’t hit threes.

As far as his trade value, they have tried to move him and clearly don’t like any of the offers they’ve received. Monroe’s value has plummeted due to what’s happened in Milwaukee. It doesn’t help that, as Lang mentioned, his minutes and (as a result) his production are way down this season.

I will throw one potential destination out there: What about Washington? As we just talked about, this is a team that is struggling and may be looking to mix things up. Also, it’s worth noting that the Wizards’ front office expressed interest in trading for Monroe several times when he was with the Detroit Pistons, so they have liked him for awhile. I have no idea what they currently think of him, but they’re looking for change and they have trade assets, so it’s worth throwing out there.

Lang: Good stuff guys. I want to change gears one last time and talk a little about The Brow. There’s no denying Anthony Davis is one of the 10 best players walking on this earth right now, but his injury woes have to be concerning for the New Orleans Pelicans’ fan base. He’s never played 70 games in a season and while his injuries haven’t been career-threatening types, you get the sense every time he falls, lands, jumps into the crowd or sets a screen that Pelicans fans are holding their breath – much like Chicago Bulls fans used to with Derrick Rose. Alex, do you think The Brow will ultimately overcome these nagging small ailments and put together a string of 75-78 games played campaigns? Or is his destiny going to remind us of Marcus Camby (health wise)? On you, bro.

Alex: I really hope his injuries are a thing of the past. Davis is one of the most exciting NBA players to watch and I’d hate for him to be limited in any way going forward. With that said, it is somewhat scary that he’s had so many injuries because it doesn’t get any easier for a big man to stay healthy as they get older.

I’d like to see him connect with P3 or one of these other training facilities that monitor a player’s body, use various tests to see where that individual is vulnerable to injury and then strengthen those areas. A lot of guys are doing this in the offseason and these places have had some success with that method, predicting some injuries and helping prevent others. I’d also love to see a second star in New Orleans, giving him some help and reducing his usage rate, but that’s obviously easier said than done.

 

We’d like to thanks Alex for stopping through to talk shop with us this week. Make sure you join us on Saturday where we’ll talk the latest and greatest around the league. If you’re not following us on Twitter please do so in order to keep the conversation going: @JabariDavisNBA and @LangGreene.  Later, Hoop Freaks.

Jabari Davis is a senior NBA Writer and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the Pacific Division and NBA Social Media activity.

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Otto Porter Jr., Washington Wizards Aiming For Consistency

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

Spencer Davies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So far, so good.

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NBA Daily: Tank Tracker 2018

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

Buddy Grizzard

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

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

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

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

The Playoff Contenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York Knicks, 24-36

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

Chicago Bulls, 20-38

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

Memphis Grizzlies, 18-38

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

Orlando Magic, 18-40

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

Sacramento Kings, 18-40

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

Dallas Mavericks, 18-40

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

Atlanta Hawks, 18-41

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

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

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

Phoenix Suns, 18-41

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

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Second Half NBA Story lines

With the All-Star break in the rearview, here are the key storylines to keep an eye on for the home stretch of the season.

Dennis Chambers

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The long winter has ended.

Ok, not really. But the break after All-Star weekend has finally come to a halt, and the second half of the NBA season is ready to get underway.

Each team has around 25 games remaining on the schedule. February is in its last week, and March and April will truly define how the May schedule aligns. The first leg of this season provided more than enough entertainment, combating the narrative that the regular season is a bit of a bore nowadays.

Because of some unexpected turns through the 50-plus games already played, this final stretch that will bring the regular season to a close should be more than entertaining for the fans that think the NBA season is just a six-month placeholder for the inevitable.

So, as we get ready to bounce back into action Thursday night, let’s focus on what needs to be monitored down the homestretch.

Houston Rockets can make the Finals

When the Golden State Warriors signed Kevin Durant, a narrative swept across the league that everyone not in the Bay area should just wave the white flag. Game over.

After dropping just one game through the entire postseason last year, completely decimating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals, the assumptions were proved correct.

But things may be different this year.

The Houston Rockets are trying to end the Warriors’ Durant-Era dynasty before it starts. After trading for Chris Paul in the offseason, the Rockets are in a legitimate position to pose a threat to Golden State.

At the moment, the Rockets have the best offense in the NBA. But, not just for this season, for every season. Their efficiency is revolutionary and unprecedented. Their defense is improved, too. Ranking 18th in defensive rating last season, Houston is eighth this season, and proving to be competent enough on that end to get a few stops of their own against the Warriors. In fact, Houston has won two of the three meetings between the two Western Conference powerhouses so far this season.

For all of the damage Houston put on the league pre-All-Star break, and even leaping Golden State in the standings, the oddsmakers are taking notice.

Take a look at how drastically the Rockets’ odds at contending for a title have changed from the summer to present day. According to this odds tracker on Sports Betting Dime, Houston has almost entered the same realm as Golden State in the bettors’ mind.

Postseason basketball is a different beast, and Durant and Steph Curry are as formidable a tandem as any (not to mention their supporting cast), but the growing pile of statistics that says Houston has more than a puncher’s chance is becoming hard to ignore.

These last 25 or so games will be telling as to if the Rockets are truly a team that can go shot-for-shot with the mighty Warriors.

LeBron’s new teammates

The trade deadline in Cleveland was basically a mass upheaval of the roster the Cavaliers had struggled with for the first four months of the season.

Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Jae Crowder, Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose and Channing Frye were all shipped from The Land in hopes to bring LeBron James new players that could help him back to his eighth straight Finals appearance.

So far, so good.

The return that brought George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., into wine and gold gave the Cavaliers a much-needed boost heading into the All-Star break. Since the trade, Cleveland has won three straight games, the last two including a blowout victory against the Boston Celtics, and a road win in Oklahoma City.

But, before the roster turnovers, the Cavaliers were one of the league’s worst defensive units. Their lack of consistent effort on a nightly basis was beginning to spread doubt in the basketball minds across the league that the team would be equipped enough to beat the Celtics or Toronto Raptors in the postseason.

Coming out of the break, the Cavaliers will take on another playoff contender in the Washington Wizards. Another strong showing from the new-look Cavs could further the belief that the team is now in a better position to make their way to a fourth straight Finals.

As the regular season comes to its final stages, close eyes will be kept on Hood, Hill, Nance and Clarkson. They’re the key to any real postseason success Cleveland hopes to have. We know LeBron will be there at the end, at this point, and it’s worth watching to see if it teammates can join him.

Tight Playoff Races

For all the talk that surrounds the lack of disparity and entertainment around the league, the playoff races in both conferences appear to be coming down to the wire.

In the West, the 10th-seed Utah Jazz is just two and a half games behind the 5th-seed Oklahoma City Thunder. In between the two clubs, Denver, Portland, New Orleans and the L.A. Clippers are all clawing for spots in the postseason.

Over their last 10 games, every team besides the Thunder is at least .500. The Jazz have won 11 straight games, the Clippers are 7-3 and surging, Denver is hoping to return Paul Millsap to their lineup soon, the Trail Blazers have the luxury of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum and while the Pelicans have lost DeMarcus Cousins, their three straight wins suggest they’re learning to live without Boogie.

That’s six teams fighting fiercely for four playoff spots. Each is deserving and well-equipped enough to make it to the postseason happen.

The West isn’t the only conference with a wild bunch at the bottom of the playoff standings. The Eastern Conference contenders also find themselves in the midst of a playoff battle post-All-Star break.

Just outside of the playoff picture at the moment, the Detroit Pistons, with new star Blake Griffin, are just four and a half games behind the 5th-seeded Indiana Pacers. Philadelphia, Miami and Milwaukee are all also vying for their spot in the playoffs.

At the moment, the Miami HEAT seems to be on the verge of being the odd man out, losing two straight before the break and seven of their last 10 games. As the Pistons begin to find new life with Griffin, they could bump Miami right out of the picture if their slide continues as games pick back up.

With a limited number of games remaining, each of these teams in both conferences cannot afford to fall into a rut. Coming down to the final weeks of the season, watching the playoff carousel develop will be entertaining and worthwhile.

In the blink of an eye, the 2017-18 regular season is almost over. Be sure to keep an eye on these unfolding storylines as the league charges towards playoff basketball.

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