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Top Storylines Entering the 2016-17 NBA Season

Jabari Davis takes a look at some of the top preseason storylines as the 2016-17 NBA season draws near.

Jabari Davis

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With such a busy NBA offseason and basketball to watch during the Olympics, it sort of feels crazy that preseason games have already started and the 2016-17 campaign is weeks away. Beyond the reported $3.58 billion in guaranteed contracts that were doled out this summer or the Kevin Durant decision that resulted in bit of a ripple effect taking place around the league as teams scrambled to adjust, there were also organizations that decided to essentially press the proverbial “reset” button in order to take things in entirely new directions. The Lakers, Spurs and Timberwolves each saw longtime franchise legends walk away and are now adjusting to life with shifting responsibilities or new players stepping into roles of leadership – especially with San Antonio and L.A. Teams like the HEAT, Bulls, Hawks and Rockets each return with significant shifts to their core groups, not to mention the 12 teams with new head coaches since the start of last season. Needless to say, there are a ton of great storylines to pay attention to throughout the league, but here are a few to specifically keep an eye on as we head into the season:

The eventual fit in Oakland

Although much of the focus was on the fact that a team coming off a 73-9 season essentially swapped a role player (Harrison Barnes) for perhaps one of the game’s all-time scorers, we should probably take a moment to also acknowledge that a definite transition period should be expected after the Warriors also lost Andrew Bogut, Marreese Speights and Leandro Barbosa. Pairing Durant alongside Draymond Green is about as versatile a forward combo as we’ve seen since the 1980s Celtics, and they are about to put forth one of the most potent offensive units we’ve ever seen; the Stephen Curry/Durant/Klay Thompson trio might actually approach 1,000 threes between them. But they could also have to undergo adjustments to their defensive approach.

Can Zaza Pachulia replace what Bogut brought this team on the defensive end? Pachulia may look more productive on paper, but the Warriors will need him to be the rim-protecting presence Bogut was when healthy over the last four seasons. Guys like David West, James McAdoo and perhaps Kevon Looney can replace whatever was lost with Speights leaving town, but Bogut has been the team’s main source of rim protection for some time now, so Pachulia’s effectiveness on the defensive end could be a bigger deal than some may be considering. 

Which Eastern Conference team emerges as Cleveland’s greatest competition?

The Toronto Raptors have held that position over the past couple seasons, but could face steep competition from the Indiana Pacers, Boston Celtics and a few other dark horses. Teams like the New York Knicks, Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Hornets have each undergone significant changes and remain as “wild cards” depending upon how well the parts wind up fitting and relative team health along the way.

Paul George looked phenomenal during his time with Team USA and should hit the ground running, equipped with an improved Pacers roster that has a nice blend of talented youth alongside veterans who can also still contribute. The Celtics added Al Horford, retained some key guys in Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko and drafted another athletic (yet raw) swingman in Jaylen Brown who appears to fit the mold of type of physical player Boston prefers.

The Knicks added a ton of vets to play alongside Carmelo Anthony, but the actual story for the present and future in New York will be the continued development of Kristaps Porzingis. Early predictions and expectations of a return to the Conference Finals discussion have since tempered, but it will at least be fun to see the Knicks playing some competitive ball as Porzingis’ game continues to unfold.

The Hawks are another team that underwent significant roster turnover and enter the year with a bit of an unknown feeling that is strangely refreshing. Will Dwight Howard jell with newly promoted Dennis Schröder, as the 23-year-old adjusts to the added responsibility of leading the team? Time will tell whether the new desire to shoot more jumpers will pan out for Howard, but the hope would be returning to a familiar hometown market will be just what the 30-year-old center needs to be at his best.

The Raptors still feature the All-Star duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, but also return with a bit of depth with rookie big man Jakob Poeltl, free agent Jared Sullinger and perhaps even an energy guy in Pascal Siakam to keep an eye on. The rate at which the young guys develop could determine the depth of roster options, but a real key to Toronto’s chances this year could be whether Sullinger is finally able to put it all together on the court. He looks a bit better than he did at times in Boston from a physical standpoint, but the Raptors could really be in business if the 24-year-old Ohio State product can remain locked in this season.

Will the Clippers take the next step?

This could be the year the Clippers finally take the next step in the playoffs. The roster is as balanced as it’s ever been in Doc Rivers’ tenure as head coach and de facto front office head, and the clock is ticking on the contracts of multiple core pieces – namely Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Whether Coach Rivers actually believes there is “no gap” between the Clippers and the top teams in the league, this could be his best chance to prove that notion.

The Spurs will likely be just as formidable even in transition, but the Clippers will also have teams like the Trail Blazers, Grizzlies and Jazz each trying to take steps forward in competition for a top seed. Both OKC  and Houston could be considered wild cards. Russell Westbrook will undoubtedly play out of his mind in the new role as unquestioned leader and the pairing alongside Victor Oladipo should be absolutely electric. There also seems to be a renewed sense of confidence with the roster shift and the hiring of head coach Mike D’Antoni in Houston. We saw what type of success a happy James Harden could have just a couple seasons back when he wound up second in the MVP race to Steph Curry. Plus, Harden, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon (health permitting) et al. are about to make a ton of threes in that D’Antoni offense this season.

Shifting back to Los Angeles, the main guys are still going to do what’s expected from them, although Griffin could have even more motivation to prove himself in his return. Where taking chances on guys like Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson led to issues last season, the front office went out and added some quality pieces to help balance out some of the workload throughout the season. Whether it ultimately winds up being a “now or never” situation or owner Steve Ballmer makes good on his reported vow to do whatever it takes to keep Griffin and Paul in Los Angeles, while there will be some serious competition, the Clippers appear to be in the prime position to finally live up to the “dark horse” title some have been so eager to give them over the past few years.

How will the rookies and youth movements around the league fare?

Aside from the terrible news Sixers fans recently received on the summer’s #1 pick Ben Simmons, this is also the best time of the year to remind yourselves of where each rookie wound up landing. Individual expectations aside, Minnesota leads what could be as many as a dozen current youth movements throughout the league that should each be fun to watch develop. Karl-Anthony Towns had a historically good rookie season and appears to already have a trajectory of some of the better bigs of late. Having seen Coach Tom Thibodeau take over and help galvanize a young group in Chicago within the last decade, the growing sense of optimism surrounding this team makes sense when you consider this group could wind up proving to have a considerable amount of talent.

The Lakers and Suns each have really interesting cores as well, as each organization heads into the year with multiple young pieces to be excited about. Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker could wind up being one of the more exciting backcourts in the conference and Phoenix also brought in two promising bigs in Dragan Bender (versatile, can shoot and defend) and Marquese Chriss (one of the more athletic bigs in the draft) to develop alongside them. Tyler Ulis may have a bunch of players ahead of him on the depth chart heading in, but don’t be shocked to see him work himself into the rotation as well.

The Lakers are in one of the more unique positions of any team as they not only said goodbye to a franchise legend and the team’s leader last spring, but they also changed the head coach and overall basketball philosophy with the hire of Luke Walton and staff and now find themselves in a process of essentially rebranding with a bevy of talented, young players with no discernible leader for the first time in 20 years. They did a solid job of adding veteran presences both in the locker room and on Walton’s bench in order to assist with the transition, but it actually appears as though the franchise is fully prepared to allow this core group to learn and grow together in the same organic nature as they did following Magic Johnson’s initial departure from the game about 25 years ago. For longtime fans, while the uncertainty isn’t something they are accustomed to, there also has to be a certain level of excitement based directly upon the expectation and splendor of the unknown.

Still just 23 years old, Anthony Davis is also the leader of an intriguing team conversion in year two under Coach Alvin Gentry in New Orleans. The Pelicans have some veterans on that roster, but the principle characters are still relatively young. Could this be the roster that Lance Stephenson finally recaptures what worked so well for him for a time in Indiana? Adding a scorer like Buddy Hield into the mix will certainly help, but once again Stephenson is in a position where he could be a real difference maker if he winds up making the roster.

Don’t forget about those young groups in Denver, Orlando and Milwaukee as well, as each squad should give fans plenty to be excited over as we head into the season.

Again, these are just a few of the storylines to look for as there are literally dozens of great roster battles, teams attempting to transition from being “pretenders” to actual “contenders” and promising youth movements across the league. Regardless of whether the ultimate outcome is yet another epic (rubber match) showdown between the Cavs and Warriors, 2016-17 is already shaping up to be another one for the ages.

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NBA Daily: Decisions Loom For Thunder With Deadline Ahead

With the deadline fast approaching, the Oklahoma City Thunder will have some tough decisions to make. Quinn Davis looks at the merits of each moveable player and the best course of action.

Quinn Davis

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Entering the 2019-20 NBA season, a new-look Western Conference seemed to have extremely limited playoff space. The Oklahoma City Thunder, who had traded Russell Westbrook and Paul George away, were not expected to compete for that space.

The age and contract of Chris Paul — combined with the seemingly lackluster roster around him — made the team appear as a likely trade port for contenders in need of one more piece. Paul, as well as fellow veterans Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams, were expected to be highly sought after come January and early February.

Fast forward to today: The Thunder sits safely in seventh place in the Western Conference. The eighth-seeded Grizzlies trail them by 5.5 games, while the sixth-seeded Rockets hold a two-game advantage in their spot. Some of the shake-up is due to injuries to previous Western Conference Finals attendees in both Portland and Golden State — but mostly the Thunder have just been playing great, sound basketball.

Paul has seemingly bought into the culture, noting in multiple interviews that he has had as much fun as ever playing basketball this season. He also just told Rohan Nadkarni of Sports Illustrated that he will not be opting out or accepting a buyout to play for a contender.

With the team on the road to the playoffs and a Paul trade becoming increasingly less likely, Thunder general manager Sam Presti will have some tough decisions to make at the deadline. Do you trade the veterans around Paul to accumulate assets? Or should you stand pat, let this roster try to reach their ceiling and move forward with the stockpile of draft picks received in the last two blockbuster trades?

There is an intangible value to giving young players experience in April. They will see first-hand the effort and attention to detail required when the games become do or die.

On the other hand, there is also value to having a veteran team around the young players that the Thunder hope will one day be the faces of the franchise. There are obvious off-the-court mentorship reasons as well as basketball benefits to this strategy. A team with a handful of capable professionals allows for rookies to play within themselves and decreases the likelihood of developing bad habits. If the team decides to sell off their veteran players, there is also the risk of losing team chemistry and the interest of others looking for a new team.

With that said, these benefits are extremely hard to quantify. There is also a fair argument on the other side of the coin, too. The guaranteed minutes and lack of expectations make for a more experimental and open environment, in which a certain skill set may be discovered that would have otherwise never been unearthed.

It would be foolish to confidently say one strategy is better than the other — moreover, there are examples on either end. The Thunder’s own Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has developed quite nicely while spending his first season-and-a-half with two talented rosters. Meanwhile, Trae Young has become one of the league’s best offensive players in the same amount of time while being asked to do everything for an uninspiring supporting cast in Atlanta.

Even if there were more examples found on one side, using them would be a flawed exercise. There is no way to tell whether a rookie who blossomed in one scenario would flame out in the reverse.

This is the life of an NBA executive, one Presti knows all too well. If there was a clear answer to these questions, every team would have figured it out by now. The most likely answer is that every player is different and what works for some may fail for others.

For the Thunder, the player to cater to is Gilgeous-Alexander. The second-year guard has looked like a burgeoning All-Star for much of the season and will be priority number one as the team heads into this next chapter — whatever it may be.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that he has taken a second-year leap while under the tutelage of the future Hall-of-Famer in Paul. There is no telling the amount of knowledge and wisdom passed down from one of the most cerebral players to ever step foot on a court.

With that in mind, along with the contract concerns discussed earlier, it seems unlikely that the Thunder would break up that symbiotic relationship (barring any incredible offers, of course).

The next two trade pieces would be Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams. The former is off the books after this season, while Adams is signed through the end of the 2020-21 season.

Gallinari is the likely candidate here as his ability to both space the floor and act as a secondary playmaker would be valuable to… well, pretty much every franchise. His expiring contract would also allow potential buyers to stay flexible for this offseason.

Adams, meanwhile, is a fan favorite in Oklahoma City and a far harder to trade with his longer contract. The burly center also fills a more niche role as a defensive anchor and screen-setter that may not be as coveted by teams at the top of the standings.

Another name popping up in trade rumors is current sixth man Dennis Schroder. The speedy ball-handler is on the books until 2021 but has a much more reasonable salary of about $15 million per year. Teams in need of leadership up top may already be inquiring about the availability of the veteran point guard.

Better, Schroder is in the midst of his best season. He is averaging 18 points per game on his best efficiency ever. His ability to finish at the rim, in the mid-range and from three-point distance are all at career-highs, per Cleaning the Glass. His steady play and the Thunder’s winning record have made him a potential candidate for Sixth Man of the Year.

If teams like the Philadelphia 76ers or Los Angeles Lakers could shed enough salary to open up room for Schroder, a bidding war could emerge for the German guard.

Trading any of those four veterans could have significant effects on the Thunder’s results for this season. The team’s best lineup features all four of those veterans next to Gilgeous-Alexander. That foursome has a mind-boggling net rating of plus-35 in their 242 possessions together, per Cleaning the Glass.

If playoffs are the goal, the Thunder should stand pat at the deadline, keep the core together and chase an exciting first-round series against one of the league’s best.

The risk of staying competitive is well-documented. Even though the Thunder have accumulated a king’s ransom of draft capital, most of these picks are from the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers, two teams that will likely be competing for championships in the foreseeable future. The Thunder making the playoffs will leave them drafting consistently in the mid-to-late first round where it is much harder to predict the potential of incoming draftees.

With that said, the Thunder have the most to offer when a team is looking to trade out of a high pick, or when a disgruntled star emerges. The capital they accumulated could be simply saved up for future opportunities.

The Thunder may not win a championship this season — or even make it out of the first round — but the foundation is conducive to next-generation successes. Further, the current framework of the team has proven a perfect garden for Gilgeous-Alexander to grow.

There may be tougher decisions down the line and a time at which those assets need to be cashed in — but for now, the risk of losing this foundation outweighs the reward of a potential return.

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The Flimsiness of Narratives

It doesn’t take much for a player’s narrative to take a drastic turn. That’s certainly been the case for Brandon Ingram and Ben Simmons, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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To begin this segment on narratives, let’s travel back to the 2016 NBA Draft. Remember what the narrative was for that particular class around that time?

It was labeled as top-heavy. Very top-heavy. It was supposed to be a two-man draft. Only two prospects in that draft were projected to be potentially special talents in the NBA: Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram. While the prospects below them were labeled as more of a crapshoot, Simmons and Ingram were believed to be a cut above the rest.

Simmons was deemed a future superstar the second he hit the national stage in Australia, while Ingram garnered attention during an impressive freshman campaign at Duke. Needless to say: Whichever franchise got those two were getting a marquee building block.

Almost four years later, the narrative on the draft has definitely changed.

Let’s get back to Simmons and Ingram. Because these two were selected nos. 1 and 2 in the same draft, they will never be able to avoid comparisons to one another. Even if their skillsets have some very obvious differences, as far as overall talent goes, there are some striking similarities between the two.

Besides their same class designation and a relatively-similar height, both are oversized for the positions they play. However, those physical gifts mean that they not only outside of their regular position but instead thrive in those spots as well. Additionally, and unsurprisingly, it makes both of them two of the most versatile and unique young talents in the league.

Comparing their careers as a whole, Simmons gets the edge for now. The Aussie hit the ground running from the first moment he entered the league. Simmons has had more success both as a player and with the teams he’s played on. Today, he’s even on a team that currently has a better record than Ingram’s — by a fair margin too.

So why is it that their career trajectories appear to be going in opposite directions? At the present time, Ingram is looked at as a promising starlet whose efforts this season should be enough to, at the very least, make a case for the All-Star game. Simmons, on the other hand, seems to be everyone’s favorite scapegoat, despite making a solid case to make the All-Star Game, too.

One simple word: Progress.

With a fresh start on a new team and a clean slate of health — fingers crossed that those blood clots were a one-time thing — Brandon Ingram is living up to the billing of the second overall pick. He’s using his slender physique to abuse mismatches, his jumper is more on-point and his play-making abilities are now on full display.

Until Zion Williamson makes his debut on Wednesday, he has been the indisputable face of the suddenly-scary New Orleans Pelicans. The player that we see from Ingram today did show himself at times when he was in Los Angeles — but only in small doses. His injury issues were not on the Lakers, but with LeBron James on the team, he was thrust into a role that he wasn’t ready for. There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel, and for Ingram, it looks like he’s just about reached it.

As for Simmons, well, he has made progress from a technical standpoint. This season, he’s been able to use his physical advantages to become a much better defender. A 6-foot-10 player with his agility and great vision has all the tools to be an elite defender. Simmons was never a slouch on that end, but he’s elevated his defense well enough to get him All-NBA consideration in that department.

But, somehow, that’s also where the progress stops. Despite summer workout videos suggesting to the contrary, Simmons’ jumper is still a non-factor. Because of that, he faces more questions about his ceiling both as a player and as a pairing with Joel Embiid. Offensively, Simmons is still basically the same player he was when he first entered the league. There’s still so much to like about what he does on that end — and yet the complete lack of spacing leaves so much to be desired.

So, Simmons has improved as a player since coming into the league. He just hasn’t made the improvements that we have wanted to see from him.

The same can’t be said for Ingram

The point is: It doesn’t take all that long for a narrative to change. In this case, to many, Ingram is now the can’t-miss-blossoming-star while Simmons has stagnated — even if only just a little.

Simmons had the future-superstar label slapped on him since he entered the league — with one simple caveated-asterisk, his jumper. This was a well-dissected flaw as a prospect and, with no noticeable progress in that category, critics are on his case now more than ever.

Meanwhile, Ingram’s critics have all but disappeared. His potential has always been there, but his injury history made his future murky. For the time being, he has potential to be a perennial All-Star — most in part thanks to his clean bill of health — and he’s producing better than ever.

Still, there’s also the atmosphere that both of these players are in.

Since the 76ers don’t revolve around him primarily, nor put the best shooters around him, Simmons’ Achilles heel nearly overshadows all the beauty of his game. At this point, it’s gotten fair to wonder if Philadelphia is the right situation for him as a developing player.

That said, Ingram certainly has found the right situation for him.

Simmons was supposed to be a key cog on a title contender; Ingram was supposed to be the new face of a rebuild. There’s so much more pressure on Simmons to produce at an elite level because of the franchise’s long-term goals. New Orleans definitely has lofty expectations for the future, but not in the current year. Given Philadelphia’s shortcomings in 2019-20 thus far, someone has to be the fall guy. There’s some blame to go around, but a fair amount of it is going to Simmons.

With Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram as the latest examples, many factors in this league shape the narrative behind a player. Because the NBA always seems to live in a land of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately-isms, most forget past narratives that were once completely legitimate.

Years ago, the narrative surrounding Tracy McGrady was that he was just as good as Kobe Bryant. Not too long after, Bryant’s narrative was that he could never win without Shaquille O’Neal. Better, it wasn’t too long ago that LeBron James was perceived as a fourth quarter disappointment. In short, the story is ever-changing.

If the 76ers win the title and the Pelicans miss the playoffs, what will the narrative be for those two then? Is it going to be the same as it is now?

For now, only one thing is for sure: Narratives are — and always will be — flimsy as hell.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Sixth Man of the Year Watch — 1/21/20

Michael Porter Jr. has forced Mike Malone’s hand in Denver, scoring so well that the redshirt rookie must see more playing time. As a result, he enters the conversation for most-impactful bench player in the league. Douglas Farmer revisits Basketball Insiders’ Sixth Man Watch.

Douglas Farmer

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Unlike most other NBA awards, the Sixth Man of the Year can be won with only half a season’s worth of impact. That is an innate wrinkle to a conversation about players coming off the bench, anyway. So while most the league obsesses over defense, MVP-worthiness and postseason position jockeying, there’s another important award that has begun to heat up in a big way. Heading into the trade deadline and winter months can make or break many chances here, so check the standings, statistics and storyline of all mentioned below.

That said, and to kick things off, it may be unlikely, but a young player forcing his coach to play him more due to a blossoming scoring run can thus enter this conversation.

Michael Porter Jr. — Denver Nuggets

Porter has reached double digits in 7 of Denver’s last 12 games, including averaging 16.8 points in the last four games. At this point, Nuggets head coach Mike Malone has no choice but to play the redshirt rookie more often.

Porter’s emergence has included shooting 44.8 percent from three in the last 11 games, and 40.6 percent beyond the arc on the season. While his defense remains questionable — not a shock for a player in his first year — and his assist numbers are practically non-existent, Porter’s ability to stretch the floor around franchise cornerstone Nikola Jokić fills a need Denver has struggled with for years.

If he continues grabbing rebounds with the same frequency as he has of late, tracking down 14 on Monday — and 8 and 10 in a back-to-back this week — then Porter’s strengths will inarguably outweigh his weaknesses. A second-half surge filled with double-digit scoring efforts will gain notice, and deservedly so.

Derrick Rose — Detroit Pistons

Now that the Pistons are actively shopping Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin is sidelined for the year, Rose is once again the best player on an NBA team. Yet, he continues to come off the bench.

Being the best player on a team finally embracing a long-needed rebuild may be a backhanded compliment, but it is Rose’s reality, nonetheless. Across Detroit’s last eight games, he has averaged 24 points per night, cracking 20 in all of them and in 10 of the last 11. On top of that, Rose is averaging 6.3 assists per game in the last seven.

Maybe his bench role is a version of load management for one of the league’s most injury-crossed players. Perhaps it is an acknowledgment of Rose’s inefficient shooting as he has needed 18.6 shots per game to reach these recent marks. It might be the byproduct of a quiet tank. Whatever the reasoning, it keeps the Pistons’ most consistent player out of the starting lineup.

As the rebuild gains momentum, Rose’s $7.7 million deal for next season may be palatable for a team chasing a low playoff seed. Detroit cannot expect to get too much in return for the 31-year-old, but anything would probably be more than anticipated when the Pistons signed Rose.

Dennis Schröder — Oklahoma City Thunder

It’s not just that Oklahoma City is in the No. 7 spot out West or that it is five games ahead of the lottery. It’s that the Thunder are as close to the Utah Jazz at No. 4 as they are to missing the playoffs. This may not have been the rebuild expected, but it is one welcomed by the small market, and Schröder has made himself an indispensable piece of it.

His on/off rating of plus-12.8 ranks in the 97th percentile among point guards, per cleaningtheglass.com — something even more impressive when realizing backup point guards often suffer diminishing statistical returns due to the reserves they typically play with. Still, Oklahoma City outscores its opponents by 6.3 points per 100 possessions including Schröder.

He obviously benefits from playing alongside Chris Paul. Without Paul, Schröder’s net rating is minus-4.0, but when playing with the star point guard, the Thunder outscore opponents by 16.7 points per 100 possessions.

As long as Oklahoma City intends to make life miserable for the rest of the Western Conference, and indications are that will extend past this season, then keeping Schröder and Paul together is in the Thunder’s best interest, even if one of them is stuck to the bench to start games.

Lou Williams — Los Angeles Clippers

Even for the walking bucket known as Sweet Lou, averaging 24.8 points across a six-game span the last couple of weeks stood out. He shot 53.8 percent from the field during the stretch, including 50 percent from beyond the arc. Career 35.0 percent 3-point shooters are not supposed to find stretches that scorching.

Unless, of course, they are Lou Williams.

What may have stood out even more, though, were the 37 assists Williams dished out in those six games. That fits right in line with his season average of 6.2 assists per game, but that marked career-high remains the most surprising part of yet another stellar season from the 14-year veteran.

Montrezl Harrell — Los Angeles Clippers

Naturally, many of those Williams-tossed assists continue to land in Harrell’s hands. By just about every advanced metric, Harrell has been the second most important player to the Clippers’ season, behind only Kawhi Leonard — Paul George’s extended absence admittedly colors this gauge. Los Angeles is better on both ends of the court with Harrell involved than with him on the bench. Only Leonard’s absences are more noticeable on both ends, statistically speaking.

Porter’s rise may have pushed the Nuggets past the Clippers in the standings for the moment, but Harrell has a substantial lead on him in the race for this piece of Sixth Man hardware.

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