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Trouble from the Top Down in New York

The Knicks are a troubled franchise, which stems from the top of the organization, writes Tommy Beer.

Tommy Beer

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After over six months of silence, Phil Jackson finally spoke with the media last week. During his nearly hour-long press conference, Jackson addressed a broad range of issues. Many of them have been covered in depth, including his startling assessment of Carmelo Anthony and Melo’s future in New York, as well as his admission that he plans to take a more hands-on approach in practices next season.

However, one topic that hasn’t been discussed much was Jackson alluding to, on numerous occasions, how the system he is running with the Knicks is similar to that of the San Antonio Spurs and the NFL’s New England Patriots.

When asked about the Triangle, Phil’s meandering answer eventually led to him discussing current dynastic franchises and the men responsible for running them. Jackson explained that he believes it’s crucial to have a trusted template when you “build a system of anything.”

Jackson elaborated on this point.

“It’s no wonder the Spurs can have some success continuing their action,” Jackson said. “Or the Patriots can have success, because they can put people in places. We could do that with the Bulls and the Lakers. … You can have something that’s concrete.”

“Whether it’s teams that I have coached or Belichick, there is an identifiable way in which they play. When you develop that system so that people are all on board with that system, then you have something that’s concrete. A format.”

It all made sense, especially coming from one of the greatest coaches in NBA history. However, Phil is no longer a coach, which is part of the reason why his comments missed the mark. Also, the premise of his argument was off-base as well.

One of the keys to success for the Patriots under Bill Belichick has been Belichick’s willingness to adapt his game plan, on both sides of the ball, to his personnel. Belichick has never been chained to one particular approach, dating all the way back to his days as defensive coordinator with the Giants under Bill Parcells, when Belichick was able to slow down the Buffalo Bills’ seemingly unstoppable K-Gun offense in Super Bowl XXV.

Obviously, Belichick had to employ a different strategy to defeat the Rams (“Greatest Show on Turf”) in 2001 than he did to beat the Seahawks in 2014. The Pats have switched from a base 3-4 to a 4-3 defense and back on numerous occasions during the Belichick era.

Time and time again, Bill Belichick has adapted his schemes to match his personnel on offense and defense.

Obviously, Tom Brady has been indispensable for Belichick and the Pats in much the same way Tim Duncan was for Gregg Popovich and the Spurs during Duncan’s illustrious career.

However, even when a knee injury sidelined Brady for the entire 2008 campaign, Matt Cassel was named the starting quarterback and the Pats still managed to win 11 games that season. Of course, Belichick had to run a far different offense with Cassel under center than when Brady was taking snaps.

On a similar note, Tim Duncan was a shell of himself by his final NBA season in 2015-16. Duncan averaged just 8.6 points, but the Spurs still went on to win a franchise-record 67 games in the regular season. And, after Duncan retired last summer, the Spurs came back and once again cracked the 60-win plateau in 2016-17. Pop could no longer dump the ball down low to an all-time great in Duncan. Popovich was forced to modify his attack and did so quite successfully.

The juxtaposition of the Knicks and the Spurs is an easier ‘apples-to-apples’ comparison for obvious reasons. And comparing these two franchises allows us to make a dramatic contrast, which predates Phil Jackson, and shows why Knicks fans shouldn’t be overly surprised that the Zen Master experiment has been a disaster.

*****

The Knicks and Spurs squared off in the 1999 NBA Finals. That series ended on June 25th, 1999, with the Spurs capturing the crown by winning Game 5 at Madison Square Garden. Since that day, the two franchises have gone in completely divergent directions.

Starting with each team’s next game, which was opening night of the 1999-2000 season, the Spurs have compiled a regular-season record of 1,040-420. Yes, that’s 620 games over .500, which equates to a .712 winning percentage.

The Knicks, on the other hand, are 208 games under .500 at 626-834.

The Spurs have won 136 playoff games (and counting) and four NBA championships over that same time frame.

The Knicks, on the other hand, have won only of three postseason series and a total of 18 playoff games since the turn of the century.

The Spurs have won at least 50 games several times and qualified for the playoffs every single season since 1999.

The Knicks have won over 50 games just once.

*****

Pinning the Knicks struggles solely on Phil Jackson would be a mistake. There is a systemic dysfunction plaguing the Knicks that can be traced back to the change in ownership. Since Jim Dolan seized control of the team, the Knickerbockers have been a laughingstock, generating far more attention from missteps on and off the court than any success they have had between the lines.

With Gregg Popovich and General Manager R.C. Buford running the ship in San Antonio for owner Peter Holt, the focus of the franchise has been winning ball games. No more, no less. No sideshows. No circus attractions. You know what didn’t happen in San Antonio this season? Buford didn’t use Twitter to insult his team’s top scorer. Holt didn’t feud with a beloved former player and have said player arrested and escorted out of his home arena in handcuffs, only to then to make accusations of alcoholism. When’s the last time Holt interfered with trade negotiations and overruled Pop and Buford? Dolan has, which resulted in the Knicks giving away the farm for Carmelo Anthony and a first-round pick for Andrea Bargnani.

The Knicks have been awful for the last three seasons, but they have also been brutally bad and mostly unwatchable for the 15 prior seasons as well. There is one common denominator spanning those 18 years of futility.

Success, or failure, starts at the top.

Each season, ESPN puts out a management ranking, which rates executives of each franchise from top to bottom (team presidents, vice presidents and general managers). In 2017, once again, Popovich and Buford finished first. The Knicks (Jackson and Steve Mills) finished 29th. In the overall rankings, which includes ownership, management and coaching, the Spurs ranked first, and the Knicks were dead last.

*****

While Dolan’s culpability is undeniable, that doesn’t mean we should let Phil off the hook.

Dolan, recognizing past mistakes, announced publicly that he would be completely “hands off” when he hired Jackson.

“I am by no means an expert in basketball. I’m a fan, but my expertise lies in managing companies and businesses,” said Dolan on the day he introduced Jackson. “So I think I’m a little out of my element when it comes to the team. I found myself in a position where I needed to be more a part of the decision-making for a while. It wasn’t necessarily something that I wanted to do, but as chairman of the company, I felt obligated to do.”

Dolan has stuck to his word. However, since taking control of the decision-making in the organization, Phil has let his ego get in the way of the team’s advancement, which brings us back to Friday’s press conference.

Phil alienated current players and fans alike with his inflammatory comments, in addition to referencing the Patriots and Spurs.

It would be one thing if Phil were on the frontlines as the head coach installing this system with a group of talented players that were willing to buy into it. Instead, he’s attempting to pull strings from his office or 15 rows behind the bench. For three straight seasons, the team’s best players have rebelled, and now two coaches have been coerced to go against their preferred strategies to implement something they’re not entirely comfortable with.

What if, back in Chicago in the 1990’s, Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause had informed Phil that he had to ditch The Triangle and run more pick-and-rolls if he wanted to keep his job? How would Jackson have responded? How would Jordan and Pippen have felt, unsure if it was their coach or GM that was deciding how they would run their offense? Obviously, this is an untenable situation.

Jackson does share something in common with Bill Belichick and Gregg Popovich nowadays. All three are antagonistic towards the media. The difference is Pop and Belichick have recently earned rings and racked up plenty of wins on the sidelines this decade.

Phil comes across as dismissive despite the fact that his team has lost 166 games over the last three seasons.

In addition, Belichick and Popovich have thrived in recent years because they have been so willing to embrace change and tweak their approach based on personnel, as opposed to forcing the personnel they have to fit into a rigid system.

Popovich promotes a culture of culpability but is not married to a particular brand of basketball. Earlier this month in this space, we discussed the problems inherent in attempting to win in today’s NBA by relying solely on Triangle principles. Well, one of the rare teams that are successful in the modern day NBA without being overly reliant on the three-point shot is the San Antonio Spurs. They do lead the NBA in three-point percentage, but they don’t mind getting LaMarcus Aldridge or Kawhi Leonard open looks in the mid-range area. Still, the Spurs have proven they can win with their current roster composition and offensive approach. That’s primarily because they have always been a defense-first organization. That’s what they remain committed to, through thick and thin. Furthermore, it is important to note that when the Spurs won their most recent title back in 2014, Pop’s team averaged 23.6 3-point attempts per game during the Finals, which set a record for the most long-range attempts by any champion in NBA history.

The last time the Knicks finished near the top of the league in three-point attempts was 2012-13, which just happens to be the year they won 54 games and advanced to the second-round of the postseason. The last time the Knicks were committed to defense and made that the focal point of their franchise was back when Patrick Ewing roamed the paint. Those Knicks teams advanced to the playoffs every single season from 1987 through 2000.

The Knicks’ recent past is littered with losses, and the organization is in trouble moving forward as well. That trouble starts at the top. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to envision either Jim Dolan or Phil Jackson doing what is necessary to remedy the situation and lead the franchise back to respectability.

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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Otto Porter Jr., Washington Wizards Aiming For Consistency

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

Spencer Davies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So far, so good.

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NBA Daily: Tank Tracker 2018

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

Buddy Grizzard

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

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

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

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

The Playoff Contenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York Knicks, 24-36

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

Chicago Bulls, 20-38

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

Memphis Grizzlies, 18-38

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

Orlando Magic, 18-40

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

Sacramento Kings, 18-40

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

Dallas Mavericks, 18-40

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

Atlanta Hawks, 18-41

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

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

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

Phoenix Suns, 18-41

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

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Second Half NBA Story lines

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

Dennis Chambers

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The long winter has ended.

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

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

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

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

Houston Rockets can make the Finals

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

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

But things may be different this year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

LeBron’s new teammates

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

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

So far, so good.

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

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

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

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

Tight Playoff Races

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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