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We Should Expect An Eastern Conference Resurgence

Following what could only be described as an “ugly” 2013-14, the Eastern Conference seems poised to have a resurgent year as the balance of competition has shifted significantly.

Jabari Davis



With the NBA set to release the 2014-15 schedule, you’ll have to forgive those of us admitted basketball junkies for already beginning to obsess over all of the potential storylines, expectations and eventual outcomes of what was truly one of the more active summers we’ve seen in quite some time.

Although it was actually less than two months ago when the San Antonio Spurs won its fifth title in franchise history, it almost seems like an eternity ago at this point. Part of that is because of the fact that San Antonio tends to go about doing things in such a “bring your sneakers and go to work” manner, but we can also attribute it to the fact that we almost went directly into the 2014 NBA Draft and then immediately into the LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony watch.

Once James decided to return to Northeast Ohio, it sent a shock wave throughout the league, which included Anthony determining that staying with the New York Knicks was ultimately his best choice, and kick-started a much-needed resurgence within the Eastern Conference. Even though it appears both men decided on a slimmer-and-trimmer approach as they enter their 12th NBA season, the impact of their decisions could potentially be felt throughout the NBA for years to come.

The Eastern Conference, in particular, should be significantly improved as we move forward, which is particularly settling after a season in 2013-14 that many considered to be one of the single-worst in terms of overall competitive balance. Even though we all feel for the Indiana Pacers and that dedicated fan base –having lost its best two players in Paul George (injury) and Lance Stephenson (free agency) over the span of about 20 days – we also cannot lose sight of just how much the conference will benefit from the overall talent redistribution.

While some may automatically ‘crown’ the Cleveland Cavaliers as the expected Eastern Conference representative for next year’s Finals especially in the wake of the pending transaction that will reportedly send Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a protected first-round pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves for All-Star Kevin Love, teams like the Washington Wizards, Chicago Bulls, Miami HEAT, Toronto Raptors and even the Charlotte Hornets should be expected to at least make it interesting.

To be clear, the Cavs will be successful and should be one of the more dynamic offensive teams with James, Love and Kyrie Irving. That said, those of us that tend to respect and appreciate the process of developing team chemistry as well as establishing its defensive identity are at least pumping the brakes in terms of automatically anointing them as the eventual champions. James has the ability to be an all-world defender in his own right, but made it clear during his last couple years in Miami that he is no longer looking to grind throughout 82 games and the accompanying playoff run as his team’s sole ‘Grade A’ defensive player.

Put simply, while Love rebounds exceptionally well, neither he nor Irving would be considered “stellar” defenders by any stretch of the imagination. First-year head coach David Blatt will have the enviable “problem” of having to develop and implement schemes that can mask some of the team’s perceived deficiencies on that end of the court. That could have played into the initial resistance to trading a player like Wiggins – who figures to be a highly effective perimeter defender at this level – but the immediacy of James’ two-year contract, which has an with an opt out clause after just one season, and a desire to fully capitalize on his remaining “prime” years made for a relatively easy decision regardless of Wiggins’ potential.

On a side note, the thought of Ricky Rubio leading a fast break with the likes of Wiggins and Zach LaVine on the wings is something Timberwolves fans should eagerly await. They’ll take a few years to develop, but each of those two electrifying rookies should buy GM Flip Saunders some time to continue reshaping their roster and also have the potential to be highly entertaining along the way, but we digress.

Fresh off his first All-Star appearance and being caught up in a numbers game that resulted in the 23-year-old being cut from Team USA’s roster, John Wall will almost undoubtedly return with a chip on his shoulder. As one of the NBA’s more talented point guards, the less-heralded Wall seems intent to prove his name belongs alongside the best of what is truly one of the more talented crops of floor generals the league has seen.

“Not even (against) just those (Team USA point guards), but the NBA, period,” Wall told’s Ben Standig. “I guess I’m overlooked again. I guess I have to prove myself one more time.”

Those words should actually be encouraging for Wizards fans, as they likely mean we’ll be seeing the very best that Wall and his team have to offer, yet again. Their run to the semifinals was impressive, but the Wizards are hungry and looking to build upon last season’s relative success. If their playoff run was any indication of what is to come, it appears Bradley Beal is poised to take the next step and could even make a run at joining his backcourt mate in the All-Star discussion as we move forward. The additions of veterans like Paul Pierce (former Finals MVP), Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair combined with the continued progress of younger players like Otto Porter Jr. and Glen Rice Jr. could give Randy Wittman and his staff the strongest core the Wizards have seen in some time.

Outside of teams like the Bulls, HEAT and Raptors – which should also be highly competitive depending upon relative health – even the perennial cellar dwellers throughout the conference have made significant improvements. The Milwaukee Bucks are far from a contender, but were finally able to land what they hope can be their franchise player for years to come in Jabari Parker. His development would have been fun to watch in itself, but an another layer of intrigue was added for better or worse when the organization decided to jettison former head coach Larry Drew in favor of Jason Kidd shortly after the season ended.

The Orlando Magic have been in the NBA’s lottery in each of the two seasons following Dwight Howard’s exodus, but have gone about stockpiling a ton of young talent in the form of Victor Oladipo, Nikola Vucevic, Tobias Harris, Maurice Harkless, Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton just to name a few. Sooner or later, you would imagine that much young talent would have to pan out, and this could be the season when we witness the start of their journey back into the playoff picture.

The Hornets completed their franchise turnaround last year and look ready to make some noise again with the recently added Stephenson. When you take into consideration their drafting of Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston to go along with the additions of free agent veterans like Stephenson, Marvin Williams and Brian Roberts, the Hornets may have had one of the more productive offseasons around the league.

It will also be interesting to see what Lionel Hollins can do with an aging, but every-bit-as-expensive roster in Brooklyn. They were a playoff team in 2014, but find themselves mired in what ESPNLA’s Max Kellerman refers to as “second-round purgatory” just the same. Deron Williams will eventually return from reportedly having double-ankle surgery, and the team is also looking for a healthy return from starting center Brook Lopez. Hollins’ no-nonsense and defense-oriented approach could be just what was needed for a team that was 29th overall in team rebounds and in the bottom half of the league at defending against both two-point and three-point field goals.

The Knicks remain one of the conference’s biggest question marks, but there are already signs of improvement from a stability and player commitment standpoint. We knew that was to be expected once the franchise turned the reins over to Phil Jackson, and Anthony’s recent request for ‘patience’ and dedication to being in top physical condition have Jackson’s fingerprints all over it. It’s probably an act of futility to even ask such a rabid fan base to temper expectations (1973 was a long time ago), but Knickerbockers diehards should have plenty to be excited for as first-year head coach Derek Fisher and Jackson mold things in their preferred image over the next 12-18 months.

All in all, the conference seems to be in a much better standing as we move forward, which can only be seen as a good thing. After four years of all-out domination from Miami, even if the conference title still goes through James and his Cavs, this is the first time in half a decade where at least five teams have a legitimate shot at representing the East. That type of competitive balance simply wasn’t something any of us could have anticipated as we headed into the summer.


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NBA AM: Was Watson Setup To Fail or Just Ill Equipped?

Was Phoenix’s Earl Watson setup to fail or did he just not have the tools and experience to overcome the tenuous job of a rebuild?

Steve Kyler



Set Up To Fail? Maybe

The Phoenix Suns have parted ways with head coach Earl Watson just three games into the 2017-18 season. Associate head coach Jay Triano is expected to be his replacement as interim head coach.

Some have suggested that Watson was set up to fail, but let’s be honest for a minute. Was Watson really the best option the Suns had after parting ways with Jeff Hornacek during the 2015-16 season? Watson was well liked and that an easy and intoxicating concept, but even as an interim coach Watson won just nine games in 33 tries.

It’s not as if Watson took the team in a totally new direction; the Suns were a bad team when they took the gamble on Watson. Moving the needle wasn’t exactly likely when the massive inexperienced Watson took over the team. Is anyone really surprised he couldn’t make it work?

Sure, the roster and the priorities of the franchise were an uphill climb, but let’s be real for a minute: The Suns couldn’t have expected Watson to have the tools to bring it all together. Rebuilding is hard all by itself, and doing so with a head coach that has never coached isn’t exactly smart. In fact, it rarely works out.

It’s easy to say Watson was set up to fail, but equally easy to say he never had the experience to believe he’d be successful. It was a gamble on the Suns’ part, a gamble that ran its course.

So What Next?

The Suns are not very good, as three straight blow out losses have proven. It’s possible that Triano can make enough changes to at least get the Suns to compete, but the word in NBA circles was the Suns locker room had basically quit after three games, so Triano’s task may be tough for even a coach that been around the block a few times.

Like Watson, Triano is incredibly likable and approachable, but unlike Watson, Triano has experience. Triano has experience not only as a head coach, having coached the Toronto Raptors for three years, but he is the head coach of the Canadian National Team and has been on the Team USA and Portland Trail Blazers staff as an assistant. While Triano’s stint in Toronto looked a lot like Watson’s stint in Phoenix, the big difference is Triano has been around a lot more situations and may be better equipped to put a system and structure in place that could yield improvement, or at least that’s the newest bet the Suns are making.

With Triano at the helm, it’s also likely that the front office will have a better relationship than what’s emerged in Watson’s time in Phoenix. General Manager Ryan McDonough and Watson haven’t exactly been on the same page, and Watson had grown emboldened enough to make it clear in the media somethings were not in his control, often taken subtle shots at decisions made by the front office.

It is rare for inexperience and dysfunction to yield success. The hope is Triano will smooth some of that over.

“I Dont wanna be here.”

As news of Watson’s firing began to leak Suns guard Eric Bledsoe, who had a very good relationship with Watson, took to Twitter to announce “I Dont wanna be here.”

Bledsoe has been a constant name in NBA trade circles for the last few years, and with Watson out of the picture, Bledsoe seems to be looking for the door too.

The 27-year-old Bledsoe has two more seasons remaining on his deal, $14.5 million this season and $15 million owed for next season. The Suns have listened to offers on Bledsoe off and on for some time, with many in NBA circles believing this would be the season the Suns would finally trade him.

With Watson, a long-time champion of Bledsoe, out of the picture, there is a belief that Bledsoe’s role is going to decrease, which is likely why Bledsoe took to Twitter.

Pulling off a trade three games into the season seems highly unlikely, especially given that Bledsoe has likely killed his own trade value. There have been several teams over the last two seasons with interest in Bledsoe; the question is, will the Suns close this chapter or try and see if Bledsoe can help them right the ship under Triano and rebuild some trade value when the trade market opens up in December?

$41.11 Million

Of the Phoenix Suns’ $85.448 million in guaranteed contracts, $41.11 million belongs to Bledsoe, injured guard Brandon Knight and center Tyson Chandler. You can toss $10 million more for injured forward Jared Dudley. While Bledsoe and Chandler have played in all three regular-season games, both are not part of the long-term future of the team.

The question becomes, what role will they play under Triano?

The Suns are truly a tale of two teams. There is the old veteran squad that is clogging up the top of the Suns salary cap chart, and there are rookie scale players that are the future, and not coincidentally the players performing at their worst so far this season.

Will the Suns just let the $41.11 million owed at the top just sit, or will the Suns try and fire-sale some of those veterans? The belief is they would like to do the latter.

As much as people may want to say Watson was set up to fail, the evidence in the situation is he was never proven enough to succeed.

The Suns are in a dreadful no-man’s land of bad contracts and underperforming players. Maybe a more proven established coach could have set this situation in a better direction, but the reality is Watson was never experienced enough to handle a rebuild like this because getting the most out of players while losing is a very tough job even for the most experienced of coaches.

Watson, like many before him, will find another job in the NBA. Maybe like Triano who is replacing him, he can take the lessons learned in Phoenix and become a better coach somewhere down the road and get a shot with a team that wouldn’t require as much as the Suns desperately need.

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NBA Sunday: Kristaps Porzingis Sure Looks Ready To Be The Franchise

The Knicks hope Kristaps Porzingis can become their franchise. Thus far, he seems up to the challenge.

Moke Hamilton



He stood in front of his mentor, isolated, just like they used to do in practice.

He’d seen the jab steps before and the head fakes—they were nothing new. And when Carmelo Anthony mustered the acceleration he still has in his 33-year-old legs to drive around Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony knew he had the 7-foot-3 Latvian big man beat.

Anthony triumphantly rose to the basket and delicately attempted his right-handed layup. Before he knew what hit him, though, Anthony’s shot had been sent to the free throw line.

The message was clear—Kristaps had taken the torch.

“It was fun,” Porzingis said about his confrontation with Anthony. “We went at it in practices a lot and one-on-one after practices.

“It was a lot of fun knowing what he was going to do and try to stop him.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder were much closer to the NBA Finals than the Knicks were last season, and removing Anthony from the Knicks and pairing him with Russell Westbrook and Paul George gives the Thunder a triumvirate that can at least conceivably challenge the Golden State Warriors. They are perhaps the only team in the entire league with enough firepower and defensive pieces.

So no, the Knicks may not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy anytime soon, but at the very least, the franchise seems to be in good hands—the big, soft hands of Porzingis.

As young NBA players come into their own and attempt to fulfill the lofty expectations that everyone has of them, the third year is the charm, almost invariably. And in that that year, a young player can’t control the other pieces that are around him—that’s why they shouldn’t be judged by their team’s wins and losses.

In that third year, a young player also can’t really control the frequency of his injuries. The simple truth is that many 21 or 22-year-old players simply lack the hardened bones of a fully grown adult that most men become after the age of 25.

But what the young player can prove is that he is prepared to shoulder the burden and take the fight to anyone who stands before him. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks epitomizes this ideal better than any other young player in the league. He is absolutely fearless and it’s a pleasure to watch.

So is Porzingis.

Since the influx of European-born players began about 20 years ago, we have seen our fair share of “soft” European players. His talent aside (which is considerable), Porzingis has proven to be anything but, and that by itself can help players go a very long way.

In what must have felt like the longest summer ever, Porzingis saw the franchise that drafted him undergo an overhaul that resulted in a light beaming so brightly on him, you would have thought the third-year forward was starring in a Broadway musical.

Say what you want about Porzingis, but he has already done all that he can to notify everyone that have anything to do with the Knicks that his bony shoulders aren’t indicative of the weight he’s capable of carrying.

And in Oklahoma City, against his mentor, Porzingis did the heavy lifting.

“I saw energy,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team’s opening night loss.

“He was great moving. He played 38 minutes, and maybe last year that would be a struggle. He would maybe get tired, and get some silly fouls, but even toward the end on that 37th or 38th minute, he was still up hollering, moving, blocking shots and getting rebounds, so he had a great game and we expect a lot more of that from him.”

Being a Knicks fan is something that nobody should wish on their worst enemy. The franchise has made scores of maneuvers that lacked wisdom and seemingly gone out of its way to alienate people beloved by the franchise. On top of it all, Knicks tickets are among the highest in the entire league.

Fans as passionate and dedicated as Knicks fans deserve a team they can be proud of and a front office that dedicates itself to putting winning ahead of petty feuds and politics.

The hiring of Scott Perry may signify just that.

So when the Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony and ended up getting back 10 cents on the dollar for his value, everyone should have prepared for a long season in New York City.

Coming in, Knicks fans once again found themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to talk themselves into believing that Ramon Session, Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway were capable of giving this team feel good moments. And while they certainly are, they will surely pale in comparison to the amount of losses that the club accrues along the way.

If there’s one thing the Philadelphia 76ers have taught everyone, however, it’s that the losses don’t necessarily need to be in vain.

So heading into this season, what Knicks fans should have been looking forward to and hoping for is nothing more than the installation of a culture that’s marked by effort, communication and selfless basketball—the hallmarks of the Golden State Warriors.

Aside from that, yes, they should have also come in with the hope that Kristaps Porzingis would take an appreciable step forward and prove himself to truly be a capable franchise cornerstone.

To this point, from the way he holds his head highly, despite a win or a loss, and the way he competes to the best of his abilities, despite his limitations. For now, it’s really all that could reasonably be asked of him.

When it was all said and done—when Porzingis looked the Knicks’ past in the eyes after the Thunder had soundly defeated his New York Knicks—Carmelo Anthony probably told him that he was proud of him and that he wished him all the luck in the world.

He probably told him to continue to work on his game and hone his craft and to block out the background noise.

And above all else, Carmelo probably told Kristaps that he believes he is capable of being his successor.

With his nodding head and serious demeanor, Porzingis, in all his glory, listened intently. Even more so, he believed every word. 

It doesn’t take all day to figure out whether the sun is shining—it’s an adage that remains as true in basketball as it does on a May Day in New York.

For Porzinigis, the bright sky and the beaming sunlight—he’s basking in it all. Not only has he becomes the Knicks’ franchise by default, he believes he’s capable of shouldering the burden.

In this town, that’s more than half the battle.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz



It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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