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The Top 10 Players in the NBA

Nate Duncan ranks the top 10 overall players in the league, and explains why a certain Chicago Bull is not among them.

Nate Duncan

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The explosion in NBA media over the past 15 years has certainly been a good thing (when something results in me having a job, I tend to like it). The increased coverage and analysis has largely led to more NBA fans becoming much more informed, but has its downsides as well. One of these is the need to react nearly instantly to any good performance. This year, analysts and fans have repeatedly broken out their jump to conclusions mats to proclaim a great upheaval in the hierarchy of NBA players based on a good month of games.

Whether it’s Kevin Durant sewing up the MVP in January or Paul George as an MVP candidate in November, these judgments have largely proved to be premature. This trend has reached its zenith in the last week as Joakim Noah has been anointed a top-five MVP candidate.

I am from Chicago and love Noah’s game, but I do not think he is even a top-10 player, much less top-five. I decried this development on Twitter, and in response was asked who I would rank above him in the top 10.

Context can make such a ranking very difficult. However, I will interpret it using the following question: Which player would I pick if I were starting a team and needed to win a game tomorrow with average NBA talent around him? A guiding philosophy in this ranking is that efficiently creating shots for oneself and others is the premium skill in the NBA. Defense certainly matters, especially at the big positions, but the difference between the best and worst offensive players is far greater than on the defensive end. Finally, I will rank the players in tiers to represent points in the list where there is a big drop off.

Tier One

1. LeBron James

James’ recent explosion has confirmed that he is still the league’s best player. Taking his outstanding shooting, playmaking and finishing as a given, what most sets him apart is defense. James has proved capable of supporting small-ball units defensively with his crazy off-ball activity, which allows Miami to surround him with far more offense than other wings. In a winner take all game with him playing at full intensity on defense, he would still be my first pick.

2. Kevin Durant

Durant has at least made it a legitimate debate over who is the better player this season. He is now fairly obviously the best scorer in the league, while improving his playmaking, efficiency and off-the-dribble game. His defense has also improved in lockstep with the Thunder’s overall improvement, but he is still nowhere near the all-encompassing force on that end that James can be.  Nevertheless, he is far above the third player on this list.

Tier Two

3. Chris Paul

That is it for players who have no weaknesses, which means this just got really hard. A year ago, Paul was a fairly clear number three on this list, and statistically he has put up almost identical numbers to last year. He ranks fourth in PER and fourth in Kevin Pelton’s per minute win percentage, trailing James, Durant and Kevin Love in both categories. He also ranks third in Regularized Adjusted Plus Minus* (RAPM), per Stats for the NBA. RAPM is a plus/minus metric that purports to adjust for the quality of a player’s teammates and the opposition while he is on or off the floor to help remove external factors such as a poor backup or teammates from the plus/minus equation.

But subjectively, Paul has slipped, exhibiting less facility for getting into the paint while missing more games. While these numbers are not the be-all end-all, Paul ranks 52nd in drives per game and 52nd in team points per game scored off drives. He simply seems less capable of imposing his will on the game this year, and the team’s drop-off was not as large as would be expected when he missed time with a shoulder injury. Paul also is pretty much an average defender at point guard, with his quick hands counterbalanced by his short arms closing out on shooters. On the other hand, he also does not actually hurt the team’s defense, especially since he does not play a key position on that end.

So Paul seems ripe for replacement, but the problem is the candidates below him are equally flawed, great players though they are. Paul also deserves extra credit for the excellent clutch scoring of his teams over the years. As a perimeter player, he is more able to affect the game at crucial moments than his competition for this spot. It remains his for now.

4. Kevin Love

By traditional box score-based metrics, Love should be third on this list. He is a solid third in PER and first in win percentage. He also ranks fourth in RAPM. Love is a fantastic offensive player, posing a very unique problem for defenses with his abilities to post up and shoot 35 percent of his field goals from beyond the three-point arc while maintaining a 28 percent usage percentage.

So why isn’t he the clear number three? Defense. Love does lead the league in defensive rebound percentage, and helps the Wolves to the number six defensive rebound rate, but he is at best an average defender and D is much more important at the big positions. He is a poor rim-protector, and is a major reason teams shoot a ridiculous percentage inside against the Wolves. To truly optimize a team, he must be paired with a great shot-blocking center.

Another demerit for Love is Minnesota’s awful clutch performances this year, a major reason they are out of the playoff race. It is hard to say how much of that is bad luck, but it does matter that Love has yet to show the ability to push his team to great clutch performances the way Paul and James consistently have the last few years. That said, his statistical resume is far enough ahead of the competition that he cannot be dropped any lower than fourth on this list.

Tier Three

5. Stephen Curry

Tier three was just as hard to rank. Curry’s case boils down to the fact that having him in the game essentially creates a top-five NBA offense. The Warriors score at basically a league-best rate with him on the floor, and crater to well below league-worst without him. While some of that is due to the Warriors’ backup point guard woes, the team has one other clearly above-average offensive player: David Lee. Curry’s three-point shooting bends the entire defense to him and requires constant attention at all times, whether on pick-and-rolls or off the ball. Meanwhile, he has improved into one of the game’s best playmakers as well. On defense he has below average quickness, but very quick hands and decent size for the position to the point he is not an enormous liability. His individual statistics are not quite worthy of this fifth position (ninth in PER among realistic contenders and sixth in win percentage) but I believe the effect he appears to have on his team’s offense overshadows his slight deficit in the individual metrics.

6. Blake Griffin

Griffin ascends to this spot on the strength of his torrid play since Paul suffered his shoulder injury. He has improved nearly every aspect offensively, whether it is postups, midrange jumpers, free throws or pushing the ball in transition. With Paul out, Griffin showed the ability to carry the Clippers’ offense while maintaining excellent efficiency and upping his usage. Griffin’s strides have been equally impressive on defense, where he has shown the ability to play big minutes as a key cog on a unit that has been one of the league’s top ten since the early going.  He is not a stopper, but at least he has shown the ability to avoid being a detriment. The stats support Griffin’s case as well, as he ranks eighth among realistic contenders* for this list in PER and eighth in RAPM, though in the 20s in win percentage. Those numbers are depressed by how he did in the early season–based on how he is playing now he belongs in this spot.

*This excludes players like Andre Iguodala (RAPM) and Brook Lopez (PER) who rank ahead of Griffin but obviously should not be considered anywhere near top-10 players.

7. Anthony Davis

Based solely on his individual statistics, the 20-year-old Davis belongs higher on this list. He is fourth in PER, and fifth in win percentage. His midrange jumper became automatic almost overnight, and he is a terror in the pick-and-roll and on the offensive glass. The problem is his team’s performance. I am not one to harp on such matters unnecessarily–a player should not be punished for having poor teammates. But the Pelicans have disappointed this year, especially on defense despite Davis’ astronomical block and steal numbers. RAPM hates Davis, rating him below average on both ends, in similar fashion to how Kevin Durant initially struggled in plus/minus metrics. Durant eventually figured things out to become one of the league’s best, and I fully expect Davis to as well. But there is something to be said for being only 20. While Davis stuffs the box score, his inexperience manifests itself in his inability to improve his team’s performance, especially on the defensive end where execution of the scheme is paramount.

Tier 4

8. Chris Bosh

This may be the most controversial choice, but Bosh belongs here because of his versatility and the fact that he still has the skill to take on a much larger share of the offense than he does in Miami. His ability to play center on defense, blitz the pick-and-roll and shoot the lights out on offense is an essential part of the HEAT’s system. He has also returned to the four at times lately and proved an excellent choice as a stretch power forward. Bosh also retains the ability to post up and score, which would prove very useful on an average team with less threats than Miami. He possesses just about every big man skill, allowing one to build nearly any kind of team around him.

9. Russell Westbrook

Remember him? A guy many considered a top-five player in the NBA last year? Westbrook has had three surgeries since then, but on a per minute basis has been similar to the player he was a season ago. He ranks eighth in win percentage and 12th in PER among realistic contenders.  He has shown the ability to play even better than that in previous years. After a few more weeks to get back into it, this may appear too low for the UCLA product.

10. Dwight Howard

The Houston center just is not quite the force he was in Orlando on either end, although he continues to improve as he approaches two years removed from back surgery. He still no longer constitutes a top-five defense by himself, but he still has anchored a top-10 unit with only one other above-average defender in the starting five. Offensively, Howard has improved his free throw shooting from horrendous to really bad by utilizing a new routine, and his postup efficiency has improved as the year has gone on. The Rockets outscore teams by 7.7 points/100 with Howard on the floor, and only 0.4 when he sits. Despite his personal foibles, Howard is in a near-dead heat with Bosh for the status of best center in the game.

Honorable Mentions In No Particular Order

All of these players belong in Tier Four as well, as there is little to separate them from Bosh, Westbrook and Howard.

Paul George started the season playing like a top-five player, but his offense has regressed significantly toward last year’s levels. He is obviously a great defender, but he is not playing anywhere near a top-10 level on offense right now. That torrid start to the year, driven by unsustainable jump-shooting, looks like an aberration at this point.

Dirk Nowitzki ranks very highly on a per minute basis, but he only plays 32 minutes per game now and is a big part of the problem with Dallas’ near-awful defense.

James Harden has slightly regressed offensively this year, and he may be the second-worst defender on this list after Nowitzki.

Carmelo Anthony is having nearly his best year, but his poor defense and isolation-heavy game prevent him from cracking the top 10.

What about Joakim Noah?

So why isn’t Joakim Noah a top-10 player? Offense. Noah is kind of the center version of Rajon Rondo. His passing is very flashy, and he’s a great offensive rebounder, but those are his only two above-average offensive skills aside from screen-setting.* He shoots a poor percentage for a center and struggles to finish at the rim, especially off two feet. He also turns the ball over on a high 17.2 percent of his possessions, and his usage rate is below the league average. And Noah’s passing, while useful, is featured on this Bulls team more out of necessity. On a team with more shooters and creators, having the ball in his hands constantly would not be as favored an option.

* This shows in his offensive RAPM, which is negative. The Bulls do score much better on offense with Noah on the floor than off, but that is due in large part to his execrable backup Nazr Mohammed. RAPM adjusts for that fact.

Noah remains among the league’s best defenders and rebounders, but he is a middle-of-the-pack offensive center who kills a lot of possessions with turnovers and missed shots. That prevents him from being a top-10 player.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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NBA Daily: Is Mitchell Robinson’s Injury a Blessing in Disguise?

Drew Maresca explores what Mitchell Robinson’s injury means to the New York Knicks — this season and beyond.

Drew Maresca

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The New York Knicks are right in the middle of a playoff push. They are currently in the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference and they appear to be in good shape to at least qualify for the play-in tournament, 6.5 games ahead of the 11th seeded Toronto Raptors.

The Knicks have remained in the playoff picture despite starting center, Mitchell Robinson, missing 23 of the team’s 55 games.

Most recently, Robinson exited a March 27 contest against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first quarter with a broken foot. Including the March 27 game against Milwaukee, New York has won five of their last 10 games without Robinson.

As recently as last season, Robinson was viewed as the team’s answer at center – and, along with RJ Barrett, the team’s only long-term building blocks. This take has aged badly given the progress made by Julius Randle and the success had by rookie Immanuel Quickley (and to a lesser degree, Obi Toppin.)

But in celebrating the team’s present, it’s fair to question their future – does New York’s success without Robinson mean he’s expendable?

The 2020-21 season has been challenging for Robinson, who already missed 15 games earlier this year with a broken right hand. Somewhat miraculously, the Knicks have continued their strong play without Robinson In total, New York is 13-11 without Robinson and just 15-16 with him.

The timing of the injury is apropos.

The Knicks and Robinson were expected to engage in contract discussions this offseason. They still have some time to figure out a path forward, but the injury makes an otherwise straightforward contract negotiation trickier. The Knicks possess a team option for Robinson in 2021-22 for $1.8 million, which is significantly below market value for a player of Robinson’s stature.

Robinson is averaging 8.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and (a career-low) 1.5 blocks per game. He’s also averaging a career-high 27.5 minutes per game, due — in part — to his ability to avoid fouls. Robinson averaged 3.2 fouls per game last season, fouling out of seven games. He’s down to 2.8 personal fouls per game this year and hasn’t fouled out of a single contest.

A long-term agreement appeared likely between the Knicks and Robinson prior to his (presumably) season-ending foot injury. Similarly skilled, albeit more polished, players have signed significant deals in the recent past. Clint Capella signed a 5 year/$90 million deal in 2018, which is higher than what most expected Robinson to fetch — but it probably would have been referenced in negotiations.

Following the injury, a smaller deal is likely — if at all. The Knicks will probably still pick up Robinson’s option, but they could either trade him or let him play out next season without an extension. And while the Knicks must decide if they’d like to prioritize Robinson, Robinson must decide how much of a discount, if any, he’s willing to accept from New York (or anyone.) Robinson just signed with his sixth NBA agent (Thad Foucher of the Wasserman Group) and he’s expected to chase some of the money he missed out on by skipping the 2018 NBA Draft Combine and falling into the second round.

But Robinson shouldn’t push too hard in negotiations as the Knicks can just as easily turn to someone on their current roster as his replacement — and it would cost them far less in guaranteed money.

Enter Nerlens Noel. Noel has been a pleasant surprise for president Leon Rose and Knicks’ fans alike. He’s averaging 5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game on the season; but he’s come off the bench for much of it, receiving just 23.1 minutes per game.

But even in limited time, Noel has had a major impact on the team’s defensive. He’s first in the NBA in defensive plus-minus (3.3), second in the percentage of the team’s blocked two-point field goal attempts (8.9%) and third in defensive win share (2.7).

And he’s been even better in Robinson’s absence. In his last 10 games, Noel is averaging 5.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.7 blocks in 26.1 minutes per game.

Noel signed in New York for just one year/$5 million this past offseason. While that is cheap relative to other starting-caliber centers, he’s not doing anything he hasn’t done in the past. Noel is averaging fewer points, assists and steals per game while securing more blocks and essentially the same number of rebounds. So, if teams knew what Noel could do entering 2020-21, why would they pay him more next season for the same output? Unfortunately, free agency is a fickle beast and there’s no rhyme or reason as to why teams weren’t interested in like Noel last year — but the Knicks will likely have the upper hand in negotiations.

Ultimately, the Knicks’ desire to keep Noel shouldn’t influence their preference to re-sign Robinson. Remember, Robinson set the single-season record for field goal percentage last season (74.2%) and he averages greater than two blockers per game over his career. He’s an elite lob target, and he closes out on shooters better than just about anyone in the league.

Contract negotiations are a zero-sum game in which one party wins at the expense of the other. Robinson and the Knicks should enter into negotiations delicately. Robinson probably feels owed given his cumulative salary relative to his past performance, and the Knicks were probably hoping for a more concrete body of work, leading to more certainty around an offer.

The reality is that Robinson has struggled with injuries — this year and in previous seasons — and his game hasn’t developed significantly since his rookie season. He is also a very unique talent who should get even better with more time under coach Thibodeau.

So for the best possible outcome, all parties must concede.

The Knicks are best with both Robinson and Noel. As much as Robinson’s injury will hinder how far New York can go this season, it can be key in their future. If Robinson and Noel are amenable to the idea of returning at a slight discount, it can ensure their defensive excellence continues — and if it’s at the right number(s), it should allow for considerable financial flexibility to continue maneuvering.

And the Knicks haven’t been savvy maneuverers in a long time.

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NBA

NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – April 16

With under 20 games to go in the regular season, the Rookie of the Year race is becoming clearer. Tristan Tucker breaks down the ladder’s changes over the past two weeks.

Tristan Tucker

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With under 20 games to go in the NBA season, each award’s frontrunners are coming into clearer focus. A two-man race is forming at the top of the rookie ladder, with Anthony Edwards and Tyrese Haliburton leading the charge. Without further ado, let’s take a look at how the rookie race is shaking out mid-way through April.

1. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves (Previous: 2)

Edwards is scorching hot and he’s bumped his scoring up to 18.1 points per game on the season. Since Basketball Insiders’ last rookie ladder, Edwards eliminated all concerns of a jump shot, something that’s coming more consistently to him.

In that period of time, Edwards is averaging 23.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.6 steals. The talented wing out of Georgia is shooting 36.2 percent from three and 44.4 percent overall, much improved from earlier in the season.

There are still some concerns, but Edwards has clearly made the Timberwolves a more competitive team as of late. With D’Angelo Russell back from injury, the Wolves will finally get a chance to see their young corps in action.

2. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings (Previous: 1)

After Sacramento won seven of eight games, the team has dropped eight in a row and Haliburton moved back to the bench. During this stretch, Haliburton’s ultimately struggled with accuracy, though it hasn’t impacted his season averages.

For Haliburton, team success and overall impact on the floor is his strongest case for the Rookie of the Year award. However, now that the Wolves are much more competitive and the Kings are on the decline, Edwards is the frontrunner.

3. Saddiq Bey, Detroit Pistons (Previous: 5)

With Ball and James Wiseman sidelined, Bey seems like a good bet to be the third in line for consideration for Rookie of the Year. Bey is rising up the historical ranks for rookie three-point shooters. Bey’s 38.6 percent clip from deep on over six attempts per game would rank as the best for a rookie ever.

In the last two weeks, Bey’s averages have jumped to 15.6 points, 3 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game. Meanwhile, his shooting is up to 47.5 percent from the floor and 42 percent from deep on even more attempts.

4. Jae’Sean Tate, Houston Rockets (Previous: 3)

In a season without many consistencies, Tate’s been a diamond in the rough. Tate can do a little bit of everything, boasting good hands, high efficiency, somewhat of a deep shot and a passing vision. In the last two weeks, Tate is averaging 12.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.5 steals per game while playing huge minutes.

If Houston holds onto its first-round pick this year, it’ll have an exciting young group to look forward to. Christian Wood and Kevin Porter Jr. have also shined this year, while fellow rookie Kenyon Martin Jr. looks like a steady professional already.

5. Chuma Okeke, Orlando Magic (Previous: Not Ranked)

Okeke makes his debut on the rookie ladder, cracking the top five. Originally drafted in the 2019 draft, Okeke sat out for the year and didn’t sign his rookie contract until the 2020 offseason. Following Orlando’s firesale at the trade deadline, Okeke became a full-time starter and has shined.

As a full-time starter, Okeke is averaging 12.7 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.1 steals and 1 block per game. While the Magic is spiraling, Okeke’s been a bright spot for a team looking for franchise cornerstones.

6. Desmond Bane, Memphis Grizzlies (Previous: NR)

Bane’s been a long-range sniper all season long but he’s upped the ante in recent weeks. Since the last ladder, Bane is shooting a whopping 45.9 percent from deep on just under five tries per game.

Bane fell all the way to the last pick of the first round in the 2020 NBA Draft, giving the Grizzlies an extremely experienced rookie for the second year in a row, joining Brandon Clarke in that regard. On the year, Bane is averaging 9.6 points and 3.1 rebounds in 22.4 minutes per game.

Honorable Mention: Malachi Flynn (Previous: NR)

In the last few weeks, while Kyle Lowry heals, Flynn has stepped in nicely. During the last two weeks, Flynn is averaging 14.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 2 steals per game. Furthermore, the 22-year-old is shooting 45.2 percent from deep on six attempts per game in that span.

Flynn’s development is extremely underrated, especially if Lowry departs in the offseason. If Flynn’s per-game numbers can be consistent, the league will be on notice.

LaMelo Ball’s injury is unfortunate for several reasons, but one of them is the fact that fans won’t get to see the fiery Rookie of the Year race near the top that could’ve been. However, fans can rest assured knowing that the NBA is in good hands. It’s especially reassuring to see so many great rookies emerge in a class that many presumed to be weaker than most.

Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders to see how the race pans out and to see who is eventually crowned the rookie champ.

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NBA Daily: Can Anyone Challenge the East’s Top Teams?

The Eastern Conference Finals will likely have two of the top three teams represented. While the rest of the teams in the East battle amongst themselves, do any of them have a shot to knock off Brooklyn, Philadelphia, or Milwaukee in the playoffs?

Chad Smith

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The Western Conference has been dominating the league once again, in terms of quality teams from top to bottom. The 13th worst team in the West would be a playoff team in the Eastern Conference. Though their depth is lacking, the East still has a few teams that are championship contenders this season.

The Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks all have a legitimate chance of reaching the NBA Finals this summer. It is championship-or-bust for these franchises who have emptied their wallets in order to pursue the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Each of these teams has at least two star players and another All-Star caliber player to help them reach their ultimate goal. Each one of these teams has a legitimate MVP candidate. In Brooklyn’s case, they just might have the greatest offensive three-headed monster the league has ever seen.

Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo are what separates these three teams from the rest of the conference.

This season there is plenty of parity among the remaining teams in the East. The standings change every night as these teams battle with nearly identical records. It would be a shocking surprise to not see one of Brooklyn, Philly or Milwaukee make it to the NBA Finals.

Odds are that two of these three teams will meet in the Conference Finals, but is there another team lurking that could upset the apple cart? Do any of these teams in the second-tier have enough talent and firepower to upset one of the East’s elite? Here are four teams that could play spoiler.

Miami HEAT

After reaching the NBA Finals last season in the bubble down in Orlando, the HEAT have definitely cooled off this year. They had a slow start at the beginning of the season, then had a long pause as health and safety protocols wreaked havoc on their roster. Not having Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic available really hurt them, but the tide could be turning.

Butler himself has been on a tear since returning to the court — and his teammates have followed his lead. Bam Adebayo has quietly had another outstanding year and they finally got their man Victor Oladipo before the trade deadline passed. Unfortunately, his recent injury put a serious damper on their hopes of getting back to the Finals.

Miami needs Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson to play more consistently, especially with Oladipo out. Veterans Andre Iguodala and Trevor Ariza should help in the postseason as they incorporate another perimeter shooter in Nemanja Bjelica. They have the star power and the experience needed to make another run, but the odds are stacked against them.

Atlanta Hawks

After a dismal start to the season, the Hawks appear to have figured out their identity. Much like the situation in Boston, this team was tasked with trying to build chemistry during a pandemic without essentially any practice. That is a difficult proposition and something that was going to take time. They also still needed to develop their young guys like Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter and Onyeka Okongwu.

After turning things over to Nate McMillan, he has been able to coach up this young squad, even without some of their top talent. Every player on the team has missed a chunk of time this year and they have had to seriously rely on their depth to get them through most of the regular season. Having won 15 of their last 20 games, they now find themselves in a position to have home-court advantage when the playoffs begin.

The vision that Travis Schlenk had in the offseason is finally becoming clear. The incredible play of guys like Clint Capela, Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic and even Solomon Hill has been vital to their success. They will still lean on Trae Young and John Collins for their offense but the talented pieces around them are what will make this team tough to beat in a seven-game series.

Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets have been one of the pleasant surprises this season, even after the acquisition of All-Star forward Gordon Hayward. Charlotte is the true definition of a team, as they have multiple guys that have stepped up and played well in spots throughout the season. PJ Washington, Malik Monk, Miles Bridges, Bismack Biyombo, Jalen McDaniels and the Martin twins of Cody and Caleb have all contributed to their success.

The play of LaMelo Ball had him sitting at the top of the rookie class before he suffered his broken wrist. His phenomenal first season may be over, but the organization is holding out hope that he may be able to return in the playoffs should Charlotte earn a spot in the postseason. Hayward is also back on the shelf as he continues to deal with a sprained foot. Charlotte has been able to stay afloat during their absences, which is a huge credit to James Borrego.

One more major difference-maker for the Hornets this season has been Terry Rozier. The electric guard is one of the top 40 scorers in the league this season and has been one of the best clutch performers as well. He is shooting a career-best 41 percent from behind the arc and 46 percent overall from the floor. They can be a dark horse come playoff time, but they will need their two best players healthy in order to have any chance.

Boston Celtics

It has been a very strange season for the Celtics, who entered the year with high expectations. They have been the greatest mystery this season and a puzzle that Brad Stevens is still trying to put together. Jaylen Brown has taken his game to another level and Jayson Tatum has had his moments as well. Both have cooled off since the All-Star break and Kemba Walker has been hot and cold from game to game.

Marcus Smart missed a lot of time and they brought in Evan Fournier at the trade deadline but he has yet to fit in like many thought he would. Chemistry could be the issue, but no one has really been able to put their finger on their kryptonite. The good news is that Tatum appears to finally be returning to health after his battle with COVID.

The center position has been a revolving door for this team all season, with Tristan Thompson, Daniel Theis, Robert Williams, Tacko Fall, Moritz Wagner and Luke Kornet all trying to fill the void left by Enes Kanter. They could have had the league’s leading shot-blocker Myles Turner, but Danny Ainge let Hayward walk for nothing instead.

On paper, this team is oozing with talent and should be much better than their record indicates. They may finally be figuring things out, having won six of their last seven games, including four straight. If their issues are truly fixed and if they can stay healthy, they will be a team that nobody wants to face in the playoffs.

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