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Toronto Raptors 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Toronto Raptors.

Basketball Insiders

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In each of the past three seasons, the Toronto Raptors have set a franchise record for most wins in a season – from 48 victories, to 49 to 56. Led by DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and head coach Dwane Casey, general manager Masai Ujiri has slowly built a contender North of the Border.

Last season, the Raptors took the team that would eventually go on to win the NBA championship—the Cleveland Cavaliers—to six games before succumbing to LeBron James and company. Now, for the Raptors, anything less than returning to that point would probably be considered a disappointment. Coach Casey received a three-year extension while DeRozan, the franchise’s cornerstone, was re-signed on a five-year maximum contract worth $137.5 million.

Without question, we are currently witnessing the Golden Age of Canadian basketball. The only question is whether the Raptors have enough to truly contend with the Cavaliers or if they will be stuck being a bridesmaid yet again.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 Toronto Raptors.

FIVE GUYS THINK

With the moves made by the New York Knicks and Al Horford finding his way to the Boston Celtics, the Raptors won’t be able to sleepwalk to the division title this season, but I see no reason to pick against them. I am a big fan of continuity and I have a tremendous amount of respect for Dwane Casey. More than anything else, the Raptors will need DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry to each prove that they are franchise cornerstones and they will have to prove that in the playoffs. Getting to the postseason, though, is a foregone conclusion. I see no reason why the Raptors won’t reign atop the Atlantic once again. My main concerns are around their ability to remain healthy for a full season and with how they will respond to losing the defensive edge that Bismack Biyombo provided. Truth is, I could see the Knicks or Celtics winning the Atlantic this season, but at this point, I’m not willing to bet against the Raptors.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Moke Hamilton

The biggest move for the Raptors this offseason was re-signing DeMar DeRozan to a five-year, $137.5 million deal. Keeping DeRozan means the Raptors can continue to work off of their dynamic duo in Kyle Lowry and DeRozan. The Raptors also have pretty good talent at just about every other position, but they’ll need a breakout year from someone like Jonas Valanciunas to have top-end talent on par with the elite teams in the league. Getting a healthy season from DeMarre Carroll could definitely help with that as well. Also, look for Norman Powell to build off of his solid rookie campaign and to be a significant part of the Raptors’ success. After years of having the same general core in place, the Raptors’ greatest strength may be their chemistry. However, it’s still not clear that this team can get past the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The Raptors had a breakthrough last season by reaching the Eastern Conference Finals after two consecutive disappointing first-round exits where they entered the playoffs as favorites. The talent is there to make another run, but the team’s move this summer didn’t do much to inspire a belief that the team can take the throne away from LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry spent the summer winning a gold medal at the 2016 Olympics and there should be some lift with forward DeMarre Carroll fully healthy. But there are new challengers emerging in the East, namely their division rival Boston Celtics, so the Raptors need to capitalize on their window of opportunity.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Lang Greene

It’s probably fair to say that there’s a consensus that Toronto is the preseason No. 2 team in the Eastern Conference, mostly because they lost exactly zero players of import after back-to-back monster seasons that finally saw them make some headway in the 2016 playoffs. Jared Sullinger was a sneaky-good acquisition, but for the most part fans should just expect business as usual for the Northerners this year. They’ll be right in the mix for another deep playoff run.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Joel Brigham

I will have to disagree with Joel, and Toronto fans won’t like it. I’m a big believer in the Boston Celtics – as I stated in their 2016-17 season preview – and I have them winning the Atlantic Division. With that said, I do think it’ll be very close and I think both squads are top three teams in the Eastern Conference. The big problem for Boston, Toronto and every other East team is that I still see a very large gap between the Cleveland Cavaliers and everyone else in the conference. I like this Raptors squad and expect them to win a ton of games in the regular season once again. But are they a legitimate contender to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy in the 2016-17 campaign? I don’t see it. I just can’t put them on the same tier as the true contenders around the league like the Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs. With that said, Toronto is beautiful and Drake is my favorite musician! Please go easy on my mentions, Raptors fans!

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Alex Kennedy

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: DeMar DeRozan

Since entering the league in 2009, DeMar DeRozan has slowly but surely improved his overall game. However, his most drastic improvements have come on the offensive end. DeRozan is coming off of a season in which he turned in a career-high scoring average of 23.5 points per game. He managed to increase his scoring average from the previous season by 3.4 points and did so while also raising his shooting percentage more than three points. Today, he boasts a very effective midrange game that has been augmented by a respectable three-point touch. Upon entering the league, DeRozan wouldn’t even consider taking three-point shots; now, after connecting on 34 percent of his looks downtown last year, he is able to stretch defenses and keep the opposition honest.

Despite the newly developed shooting prowess, DeRozan remains most effective at finishing around the basket. An explosive and dynamic finisher, he has no shortage of highlight-reel plays and creates the same sort of anticipation that Vince Carter once did when he breaks away for an uncontested finish.

Anyone who knows Dwane Casey knows how important it is to him that his players take care of the basketball, and the coach himself would tell you that this is a very underrated part of being a “good” offensive player. Even for someone who is as demanding as Casey, DeRozan’s 2.2 turnovers per 36 minutes leaves little room for more to be demanded, especially when one considers the amount of offensive repetitions and bailout plays DeRozan receives.

Top Defensive Player: DeMarre Carroll

General manager Masai Ujiri made quite a splash during the 2015 free agency period when he showed up to a meeting with DeMarre Carroll armed with a four-year, $60 million contract. Carroll signed with the Raptors and was thought to be a major piece for them, but injuries limited him to just 26 games in his first season with Toronto. What made Carroll a coveted free agent in July 2015, though, was his rare combination of size, foot speed, strength and agility. Standing at 6’8, Carroll has the height required of a small forward in the league, but his on-ball instincts and ability to read passing lanes make him effective at guarding opposing point guards and shooting guards. In today’s NBA, where pick-and-roll and motion offenses dominate most offensive schemes, having versatile players who can switch and effectively cross-match is a necessity for any contender. So long as Carroll can stay on the court, he will be a net-positive for the Raptors on both ends of the court, but particularly on the defensive end.

Top Playmaker: Kyle Lowry

Since arriving in Toronto in 2012, Kyle Lowry has truly come of age. It took Lowry nine years and four teams to eventually become an All-Star, but he has proven that he is among the league’s top point guards. Lowry was once regarded as a score-first point guard, but since arriving in Toronto, he has managed to change the perception of his game. He is two years removed from averaging a career-high 7.4 assists per game, but Lowry has become a floor general, and last season’s 6.4 assists per game is still respectable. He has greatly improved his ability to read defenses, especially while playing pick-and-roll as the ball handler.

Last season, Casey installed a fair amount of off-ball and backdoor action in his offense and Lowry found his teammates and created opportunities for others. In terms of athleticism, Lowry isn’t the most light-footed point guard. His first step isn’t exceptionally quick and he is more likely to create space for himself on a step-back than his is by blowing past his defender. Still, he is quite effective at orchestrating an offense and has excelled as the lead guard for a team that is a rising and improving contender in the increasingly competitive Eastern Conference.

Top Clutch Player: DeMar DeRozan

Over the years, there have been more than a few instances where DeMar DeRozan has come up big for his teammates. A buzzer-beating that sunk the Orlando Magic a few years ago immediately comes to mind, while last season, the Washington Wizards walked away from the Air Canada Center with a loss thanks to the heroics of DeRozan. There is a dearth of statistical evidence to support the notion that one player happens to be more “clutch” than another, but if and when the game has been on the line, Dwane Casey has been consistent in affording DeRozan the opportunity to determine his team’s fate. For the most part, DeRozan has made the right play and the correct decision.

What makes DeRozan especially valuable in late-game situations is his offensive versatility. He has proven capable of hitting a big midrange shot as well as getting to the basket. Best of all, he is a reliable free-throw shooter, evidenced by his career shooting percentage of 82.5 percent. Best of all, he is a willing passer in late-game situations. He rarely makes poor decisions with the basketball and is certainly the best option that Casey has when the game is hanging in the balance.

The Unheralded Player: Cory Joseph

After seeing Anthony Bennett’s time with the Raptors come and go, solace can be found in the fact that Cory Joseph’s homecoming has been much more productive. After spending four years as a member of the San Antonio Spurs, Joseph had a front row seat to Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan and the gold standard of NBA franchises. He experienced the gut-wrenching defeat the Spurs suffered at the hands of the 2013 Miami HEAT and the bliss of avenging that defeat in 2014. Having only recently celebrated his 25th birthday, the Toronto native has brought great experience with him back home, and it was something that was apparent at different points of last season. Although his numbers aren’t eye-popping, Joseph has slowly but surely become a solid rotation guard in the NBA and should only continue to improve as the years progress. A member of the Canadian national basketball team, the young point guard continues to ply his trade and should continue to serve as an efficient, consistent, careful point guard whose best days are still ahead.

Jonas Valanciunas deserves a mention here as well. Though not widely regarded as one of the more talented big men in the league, Valanciunas’ footwork and ability to see the court from the post are overlooked. If he can remain healthy, he can help the Raptors get to the next level.

Best New Addition: Jakob Poeltl

The Austrian Jakob Poeltl is easily the best addition to the Raptors this season. Despite winning 56 games this past season, the Raptors had the No. 9 pick in this year’s draft. That’s because of the 2013 trade that saw Andrea Bargnani dealt to the New York Knicks. Toronto exercised New York’s pick and selected Poeltl ninth overall.

Poeltl has an impressive collegiate and international basketball resume, and he will likely receive playing time from day one. Like most big men entering the league, Poeltl will need to add some size and strength in order to be able to compete everyday against the bigger and stronger veterans patrolling the interior. Already with solid footwork and good rebounding instincts, Poeltl brings a wealth of basketball experience with him to the NBA, and it’s likely to pay immediate dividends. It’s not every day that a successful team like the Raptors adds a talent like Poeltl, so he is easily their best new addition.

– Moke Hamilton

WHO WE LIKE

  1. Jonas Valanciunas

I’ve been on the Valanciunas bandwagon for a long time. Although still trying to improve his consistency, Valanciunas has a very smooth, fluid back-to-the-basket game and he can see the floor exceptionally well for a man his size. He is a hard worker, who puts a lot of time and effort into improving his craft. Coach Casey has compared Valanciunas to Zydrunas Ilgauskas. However, Valanciunas’ footwork, athleticism and mobility are far superior, and the 24-year-old’s ceiling remains incredibly high.

  1. Terrence Ross

Since being selected with the eighth overall pick of the 2012 draft, Terrence Ross has slowly but surely carved out a place for himself in Toronto. A fairly versatile player, Ross connected on a career-high 48 percent of his shots last season, including 39 percent from three-point range. His growth epitomizes two of the things we like best in Toronto: growth and continuity.

  1. Dwane Casey

My feelings about Dwane Casey and the job he’s done are well documented. After a brief and uneventful tenure as the head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Casey eventually found his way to the bench of the Dallas Mavericks and was one of the of the ringleaders of the 2011 championship squad. With him on the bench, Casey helped the Mavericks pull off one of the biggest upsets in NBA Finals history and, since then, he has worked tirelessly to deliver similar success in Toronto. Although the Raptors are still a few steps away from being a true championship contender, Casey has been there and done that and is working to deliver even better results to the fans of Toronto.

  1. Masai Ujiri

Masai Ujiri made a name for himself as the executive vice president of basketball operations for the Denver Nuggets and famously orchestrated the trade of Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks. In 2013, Ujiri became the first non-American to win the Executive of the Year Award and, shortly after, agreed to take over in Toronto. Since then, it is impossible to argue with the results. If Ujiri’s track record is any indication, the Raptors will continue to be in good hands.

  1. The fans of Toronto

We can say with certainty that the game of basketball has become the passion of Ontario. Vince Carter helped to birth an entire generation of great Canadian basketball players and the passion is evident. Good fans are an asset, especially in late-game situations and big moments. Players routinely feed off of the energy given off by their fans, and Toronto basketball fans are among the best.

– Moke Hamilton

SALARY CAP 101

The Raptors are one of the few teams that did not go under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap.  Instead, Toronto used their $5.6 million Mid-Level Exception on Jared Sullinger, and re-signed DeMar DeRozan to a five-year, $137.5 million contract via his Bird Rights.  The team still has the $2.2 million Bi-Annual Exception, but the roster has 14 guaranteed players with five vying for the one remaining spot (E.J. Singler, Fred VanVleet, Jarrod Uthoff, Yanick Moreira and Drew Crawford).

Next summer, the Raptors may have up to $13 million in spending power under a projected $102 million salary cap.  That assumes the team picks up the rookie-scale options on Lucas Nogueira, Bruno Caboclo and Delon Wright before November.  It also presumes that Kyle Lowry opts out of his final year at $12 million.  The Raptors are also likely to get the Los Angeles Clippers’ 2017 first-round pick, provided L.A. makes the playoffs.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Continuity and Chemistry: The Golden State Warriors will be an interesting team to watch this coming season. Kevin Durant has effectively replaced Harrison Barnes in the team’s rotation, and that disruption—and how Durant, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson adjust—will be interesting to observe. Indeed, chemistry and continuity are among the most important things an NBA team can have on its side, and the Raptors certainly do have that. DeMar DeRozan is entering his eighth season and has spent the duration of his career in Toronto, while Dwane Casey is entering his fifth season on the job. Long ago, Casey was thought to be a lame duck coach after he was inherited by Masai Ujiri in 2013, but since then, Casey has become the franchise’s sideline general. Casey has earned a reputation as being a defensive taskmaster who impresses his players with an encouraging but firm demeanor. Those who have played under Casey in the past have praised his remarkable people skills and his “open door, open question” policy as it relates to his players. Since taking over in Toronto, Casey has been instrumental in helping the franchise find consistency and strength and it has been reflected in the team’s success over recent years.

Jonas Valanciunas, Terrance Ross and, of course, Kyle Lowry have also found consistent productivity in Toronto. If Casey and Lowry can succeed in incorporating some of the newer faces into the culture and playing style that has become synonymous with Toronto basketball over the past few years, then the forecast in Toronto will continue to be bright.

– Moke Hamilton

WEAKNESSES

Depth and Toughness: The 2004 Detroit Pistons will likely be the gold standard for teams that depart from the typical construction of being built around one or two superstar players. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have each experienced their fair share of playoff disappointments, and despite achieving success last season, each has been outplayed by the likes of other players who are clearly a tier above them. Dwyane Wade and Paul George each immediately come to mind.

For the Raptors, true success will be judged by how they perform in the playoffs, and as it currently stands, the team appears to be built around too many “what if” performers. Lowry performed miserably in the playoffs last season and both DeMarre Carroll and Jonas Valanciunas need to prove that they can remain healthy enough to make a difference when the games truly matter. In that regard, the team appears to lack depth, especially if and when an opposing coach successfully implements a strategy to take either DeRozan or Lowry out of the game. Can Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross or Patrick Patterson deliver when it counts most? Perhaps they could, but that’s not something that a wise bettor would gamble on.

In the final two minutes of an important playoff game, Casey and the fans of the Raptors need big-time players that can be depended on to lead the troops to victory. Based on each of their performances last season, and especially in the case of Lowry, there is room for concern.

Overall, the favorites in the Atlantic Division have a solid team capable of performing well, but if there is one concern in Toronto, it would be their lack of depth, especially considering the departure of Bismack Biyombo.

– Moke Hamilton

THE BURNING QUESTION

What are the Raptors missing?

Call it the curse of success. The Raptors are coming off of a 56-win season in which they advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals and took the eventual NBA champion to six games. From this point forth, accomplishing anything less would be viewed as regression, so the most pertinent question in Toronto now seems to revolve around what it will take to truly put the team in the class of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The short answer there would appear to be a dominant frontcourt player. It was hoped that Valanciunas could have become that type of player, and though he still may, it is not often that we see players take monumental leaps in their productivity after their fourth season. If the Raptors managed to walk away from this summer with a marquee post addition like Al Horford, Paul Millsap or Kevin Love, they would’ve had a legitimate shot at knocking LeBron James off of the top of the conference. Until then, they are still probably a step below.

Of course, it would help if DeRozan or Lowry were able to contribute at a consistently high level during the playoffs, but unless a team has superstar production from other positions – like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in Golden State, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook previously in Oklahoma City or LeBron James and Dwyane Wade previously in Miami – being successful at the highest level requires dominant and efficient frontcourt play. The Raptors still seem to have a void in that regard.

– Moke Hamilton

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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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NBA

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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