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Who is NBA’s DPOY? It’s Not DeAndre Jordan

Who is the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year? A look at this season’s top five candidates.

Ben Dowsett

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Just like the Most Valuable Player race I touched on last week, this year’s field for Defensive Player of the Year is as wide open as we’ve seen in a long time. A few of the usual suspects have had less of an impact than in other years; names like Dwight Howard or the two most recent winners in Joakim Noah and Marc Gasol have all seen their contributions lessen somewhat for various reasons. Some newcomers have crashed the party as well, and growing common understanding of just what makes a defender truly valuable may be contributing in some ways to an award that, at this point, could still have several names on it.

Before we dissect the race, though, there’s one large elephant in the room that needs discussing: the case of DeAndre Jordan. Bandied about by many as the apparent frontrunner for the award after finishing third last year, Jordan is absolutely having a great two-way season as one of the most important pieces on a Western Conference contender. But to be clear right away, not only is Jordan thoroughly undeserving of the DPOY award, even considering him among the five or so most realistic candidates is an absolute slap in the face to a number of far more impactful defensive players.

Consider first some team context. The Clippers are almost exactly league average as a per-possession defensive team, ranking 15th in the league per NBA.com. This isn’t a death sentence to a DPOY candidate by itself (one of our top five candidates below plays for a team that’s slightly worse than this for the season), but the player in question had better be something quite impressive on the defensive end to warrant inclusion if his team isn’t among the league’s top 10 or so. Here’s the thing, though: Jordan isn’t that impressive as a defender. Blocks are nice, but they have an unfortunate tendency to often overrate defenders given the fact that, until recently, they were one of the only available statistical measures of a player’s impact.

This is what’s happening here, and a particularly egregious case of it at that. The largest piece of evidence? Jordan’s own team is better defensively when he sits on the bench than when he plays. That’s right, the Clippers allow a 103.7 rating with DeAndre and a 102.3 rating when he’s off the floor.

There’s always noise in these sorts of figures, but in this case there isn’t nearly enough static to overcome the simple idea that his own team defends more effectively without him while all of his realistic “competition” for DPOY sports firmly positive on/off splits. In fact, the context may damn him even further. A strong bench can often mess with these numbers – think Rudy Gobert coming off the bench for Utah last year and much of this one, skewing other Jazz bigs’ figures in the process – but this couldn’t be further from the case in L.A. The Clippers have likely the worst bench of any contender in the league, and Jordan’s primary backups this year have been the likes of Spencer Hawes and Glen Davis. Sure, Jordan plays more minutes against opposing stars, but so does every other realistic DPOY candidate, all of whom anchor lineups that blow DeAndre’s defensive figures out of the water.

Metrics like RPM, which factor in elements like teammate and opponent context to give a decent snapshot of a player’s impact independent of his surroundings, agree emphatically. Jordan barely even cracks the top 20 for DRPM at his position, checking in 19th among centers and just 51st among the entire league, trailing such defensive luminaries as Lavoy Allen, Kyle O’Quinn and Robert Sacre. There can be flaws with these metrics as a tell-all indicator of a player’s performance, but such a low rating for a supposed candidate for league’s best defender has to raise some alarm bells (for reference, Jordan also graded out far more positively in DRPM last season).

As for his supposed “rim protection,” actual data here finds him badly lacking compared with truly elite interior defenders. There are 79 players who defend at least five shots at the rim per game, according to SportVU data, and Jordan allows just the 37th-lowest efficiency among them, at 49.3 percent. Per figures calculated by Seth Partnow that incorporate added SportVU elements like contest rate and minute totals, Jordan is exactly average compared with the rest of the league’s big men at preventing points at the basket: he “saves” precisely 0.0 points per-36-minutes with his interior defense relative to the average big, a worse number than guys like David Lee and Amar’e Stoudemire (figures through March 1).

In reality, Jordan is a supremely talented guy who just isn’t all that good at the finer points of defense. His positioning is routinely awful, and he can be goaded into the air by any reasonable pump-fake as he pursues a highlight-reel swat. His rotations are mediocre at best, and he often devolves into a wild ball of confusion when Chris Paul leaves the court for brief periods (the two get almost all of their playing time together, but the Clips sink to bottom-five defensive levels during the 210 minutes Jordan has played without CP3).

A breakdown of the league’s flawed voting system that often incentivizes voters to pump up guys in their local markets – and even more often includes voters who clearly don’t watch games outside these markets – is for another time, but Jordan winning or even coming close to the DPOY award should by all means incite a sweeping condemnation of the process. These honors may be trivial to some, but they’re a big part of player legacies and guys in the league care. Allowing a thoroughly undeserving candidate the honor ahead of truly worthy ones just based on block totals or a bunch of shameless campaigning from a player’s coach would be really unfortunate. Here’s hoping those involved in the voting do their due diligence and select a more meritorious option.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the deserving names. A rapid-fire look at those who just missed the cut:

Marc Gasol: He remains a wonderful all-around player and perhaps even a fringe MVP candidate, but Memphis’ D hasn’t relied on him alone nearly as much as in previous years.

Tony Allen: Allen is a monster, but he only plays just over 25 minutes a night. It’s tough for any wing to crack the top five, and the one who does here plays more minutes (and has missed fewer games) with a similar impact on an even better defense.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist: See above, though MKG has missed even more games (17).

Hassan Whiteside: He’ll be here next year if he plays the full season and doesn’t go nuts on anyone.

Anthony Davis: Unibrow does his best to drag an awful Pelicans squad along defensively, but he’s not quite the individual force the others on this list are yet. He’s also missed 12 games, which might be the determining factor in keeping him off.

Kawhi Leonard: The toughest omission by far. Missing 18 games dooms him; he’d very likely be among the top five if he’d been healthy all year.

Please remember that this list is generally subjective, especially this year. Several of the names above have extremely compelling arguments not only as candidates, but as winners. It truly is wide open this season. Let’s get to it.

5. Rudy Gobert

The Stifle Tower is the rare exception to the above-noted guidelines regarding players on below-average defensive teams due to some extenuating circumstances and, of course, his own incredible impact on every Jazz defensive possession. He struggled somewhat to find consistent playing time in the season’s first two months amid a crowded frontcourt where his raw offensive game kept him from high volume, averaging just over 15 minutes a game in November and just under 22 in December. The Jazz were excellent defensively in these minutes, of course, but they came primarily versus bench units and not in large enough quantities to be on the radar for this award.

Around the turn of the new year, though, the Rudy renaissance began. A couple brief injuries allowed Gobert to enter the starting lineup and he seized the opportunity, dominating even elite bigs down low and altering entire opponent playbooks just with his presence. He did return to bench duty for a period but his minutes stayed up, including plenty of time with and against starting units, and with the departure of Enes Kanter at the trade deadline he now sits firmly in a starter’s role, posting a 30-plus minute average since.

The results for his team have been stunning, to say the least. This is a Utah group that, through December 31, was 27th in the league in per-possession defense. Since then, corresponding with Rudy’s ascension? An incredible turnaround – from January 1, the Jazz are the NBA’s sixth-best defense, and since February 1, they’re the league’s top unit. It’s a small sample still, to be sure, but since Kanter’s departure over the All-Star break, Utah is posting a defensive efficiency figure (88.9) that would easily rank as the best since the 1996-97 season, the first for which NBA.com tracks such numbers.

Gobert isn’t the only factor contributing to their remarkable uptick, but he’s absolutely the key galvanizing effect. Partnow’s rim protection figures cited above rate him as the most effective in the league by a comfortable margin, saving 4.16 points per-36 compared with second-place Andrew Bogut at 3.24, without a single other player over 3.00. Opponents shoot just 54.5 percent in the Restricted Area when he’s on the floor compared with 62.4 percent when he sits, and the 38 percent he allows when specifically defending shots at the rim is easily the best in the league among high-volume interior defenders.

Opponents are forced to change their entire game plans to account for his mere presence, and are often unable to do so effectively. He learns new skills at an incredible rate and is already countering many of these adjustments teams are making, and is in fact likely a more realistic candidate for Most Improved Player with Jimmy Butler’s recent injury. He has very little shot of actually winning DPOY given Utah’s standing defensively (19th) and overall (they’ll miss the playoffs), but his work absolutely deserves recognition here.

4. Tim Duncan

Full disclosure: to this eye, any of the remaining four names could basically be organized in any order without much complaint. But how great would it be for Duncan, who’s been among the best overall defensive players at his position for 15-plus years but has never won the award, to finally take it home in what may be his twilight season?

He remains at fourth in part because of Leonard, who would likely be here in Tim’s place were it not for the 18 games he’s missed. The Spurs have been above-average defensively with Duncan in regardless of Kawhi’s status, but are only truly elite with Leonard and, conversely, don’t suffer as much when Leonard plays without Duncan.

But games played absolutely matters, and Duncan has been a remarkably steadying presence for a Spurs team that may have lost a step on offense and absolutely needs his contributions on the other end. He’s fourth in the entire league for DRPM and first among guys who have played at least 50 games. His age keeps him from the elite levels of rim protection – 16th in Partnow’s metrics as of March 1 – but he grows craftier seemingly every minute, posting a career-high in per-minute steals at 38 years old. He’s another who’s unlikely to win in reality due to a lack of hype and a coach and GM who would never lower themselves to campaigning for an award, but he’s a wonder to watch and has put the Spurs on his back defensively for much of the year.

3. Andrew Bogut

The theme of games missed is a large one in this year’s race – Bogut and Leonard could easily be No. 1 and 2 in this ranking had both not missed double-digit games (and if both didn’t have teammates who make a drastic impact of their own). But the Aussie was the early front-runner and may still be for some.

He gets a short section here because his candidacy is directly tied to another player we’ll break down below, but know that a healthy remainder of the season for Bogut could easily see him take home the hardware. He leads DRPM with a comfortable cushion, is one of the league’s top rim protectors and has on/off splits that showcase the degree to which the Warriors depend on him. The Dubs remained the top defense in the league in his absence, which is a big part of him dropping to No. 3 here, but he’s as heady a defender as they come, a guy who knows all the tricks in the book. He’s never caught napping or taking plays off, and may be the single most influential defender in the game when healthy.

2. Khris Middleton

Milwaukee has undergone a remarkable transformation, flipping what was the league’s second-worst per-possession defense a year ago into what’s been the second-best unit so far this season. They’ve done it with largely the same roster, even despite the loss of a former DPOY candidate at center in Larry Sanders.

Middleton is the engine that makes it all go, and he’s having a thoroughly under-appreciated season. The Bucks go from what would easily be the league’s best defensive mark when he’s on the floor to around league average when he sits, among the largest on/off splits of any high-volume wing defender. He’s ninth overall for DRPM and first at the shooting guard position, ahead of noted stoppers like Andre Iguodala and Andre Roberson. Opponents do literally everything worse while he plays: they take fewer field-goal attempts and shoot a lower percentage from every distance, shoot fewer free-throws and turn the ball over more frequently.

Middleton’s versatility and durability are what separate him from a few of the wings mentioned earlier – he’s played the most minutes of any realistic wing candidate and has missed the fewest games. He’s also almost likely the most adaptable, capable of guarding four positions with a high degree of effectiveness. He combines with the rest of the length on Milwaukee’s roster to form an imposing switch-happy unit that dampens pick-and-roll attacks, with the Bucks ranking first overall for per-possession defense against P&R ball-handlers, per Synergy, and well above-average against roll men also. But it really stands out how much things tend to collapse without Middleton; only Jared Dudley has even remotely comparable on/off figures, and the dependence here leans heavily in Middleton’s direction. He gets runner-up honors for a really impressive breakout season defensively.

1. Draymond Green

Versatility has become among the most coveted traits for a high-level stopper as the league continues its emphasis on pick-and-rolls, and there’s no more adaptable defender in the game than Green. His presence and ability to literally guard all five positions enables Golden State to employ many of the same tactics as Milwaukee, only with even more flexibility. There are a number of occasions where the Dubs can switch every single potentially threatening action on the floor without giving up a huge mismatch anywhere, and Green is the fulcrum that makes it possible.

Separating his performance defensively from Bogut’s is tough, but there are a few telltale signs. First, of course, is the gap in games and minutes; Green hasn’t missed a single contest and has played just short of double the minutes Bogut has. He’s split his time reasonably evenly between units that contain Bogut and those that don’t, and the Warriors’ overall defensive performance is nearly identical in these two situations.

In an interesting twist, Bogut-sans-Green lineups have actually been markedly better defensively than those featuring both or just Green, but here’s the rub: those units have played so few minutes that they’re tough to assess fully, and even tougher to use as a factor in Bogut’s favor when determining who is more valuable. Bogut has played just 170 minutes on the year while Green sits, compared with near-four-figure totals for each of the other variations involving the two. It’s hard not to put more stock in the 1,009 minutes Green has played on his own, a big sample over which the Warriors have maintained their league-best defensive figure.

Consider a statement from Dubs coach Steve Kerr this week on minutes with Green at center, which Golden State utilizes regularly. Kerr indicated that these groups are defending at an 87.5 per-100 pace (these figures aren’t available publicly, but could be easily enough tracked by a team), a ludicrous figure that in part showcases just how valuable Draymond is. That the Warriors can afford to play a 6’7 guy at center and juice their offense to frightening levels with a five-out attack while playing intensely suffocating defense at the same time is a scary proposition for the rest of the league.

He’s remarkably strong for his size and among the best in the game at leveraging his weight perfectly. One would expect teams to attack him frequently in the post when the Dubs downsize and place him at center, but a combination of his incredible compete level and a Warriors scheme that does a great job shading him help has kept this from being the case at all. Green has defended just 33 finished post possessions all year, per Synergy data, under five percent of the total plays he’s faced. He’s holding opponents to an obscenely low figure in this small sample (27.8 percent shooting with over a 35 percent turnover rate), which is part of the reason there are so few, but his ability to deny entry passes and front bigger guys without being pushed around is paramount as well. The Warriors allow the second-lowest per-possession efficiency in the post in the NBA, once again a truly remarkable feat for a team playing serious minutes with a 6’7 center.

That’s only the big end of the spectrum. Green is quick with an extraordinary wingspan (measured 7’1.25 at the 2012 combine), and has the wits and impeccable footwork to check all but the very quickest guards effectively. He spends at least a few seconds here and there on all five positions likely every single game, this while maintaining the league’s sixth-best DRPM figure.

In the end, there are others with a reasonable case, but no single player brings as much value while simultaneously allowing his team so much defensive flexibility. Green can play in huge lineups down to miniscule ones, and while it’s only a tangential part of the award, his offensive skills and range allow him to remain on the court for big minutes regardless of his teammates. He’s been fully healthy and a rock for the league’s best defense, and takes home this writer’s Defensive Player of the Year award.

Who do you think deserves this season’s Defensive Player of the Year award? Leave your thoughts in a comment below.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — The Lottery Version

Most of the next six weeks will be spent focusing on the race for the West’s No. 8 seed, but don’t lose track of the annual plummet to the bottom while attention is diverted elsewhere.

Douglas Farmer

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Despite every vague description of the 2020 draft class as weak, despite the NBA flattening the lottery odds a year ago, despite the competitive instincts genuinely within each roster throughout the league, tanking in the final months of the season is inevitable.

It will not be as pervasive as it may be leading into the already-hyped 2021 draft, and it certainly will not be as rampant as in The Process-headlined mid-2010s, but the idea of increasing lottery odds still holds logical merit. With the flattened odds, four subsets exist within the odds:

Nos. 9-14: Odds from 1 percent to 3 percent of landing the top pick.
Nos. 7-8: Odds of 6 percent.
Nos. 4-6: Odds from 9 percent to 12.5 percent.
Nos. 1-3: Odds of 14 percent.

In the run-up to May 19’s lottery, many will remind that both the New Orleans Pelicans and the Memphis Grizzlies lept from those 6-percent slots into the top-two spots in the draft a year ago — but the focus should still be at the absolute bottom of the standings, where the Golden State Warriors may already have locked up one of the 14-percent opportunities.

The Warriors’ 44 losses are five ahead of — or is it behind? — the Detroit Pistons’ 39, which would necessitate quite a winning boost to overcome, even with Stephen Curry returning sometime next month. The better question is, who will spiral to the other two 14-percent chances? Basketball Insiders may be devoting much of the week to the “Stretch Run” as it applies to the league’s leaders, but five other teams will be racing down to only two spots:

Cleveland Cavaliers: 14-40 currently, 2-8 in their last 10.
Atlanta Hawks: 16-41, 4-6 in their last 10.
Minnesota Timberwolves: 16-37, 1-9 in their last 10.
New York Knicks: 17-38, 5-5 in their last 10.
Detroit Pistons: 19-39, 2-8 in their last 10.

The trade deadline provided some clarity in these franchises’ grander plans, most specifically that the Pistons have little-to-no intent of competing in the near future. With Blake Griffin sidelined, Andre Drummond traded and Reggie Jackson bought out, Detroit’s starting lineup now features a pair of names that the more casual fan might struggle to spell — Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and Sekou Doumbouya, for the record.

That three-game lead in the win column should not hold up for long. Consider their next six games: At Portland, at Denver, at Phoenix, at Sacramento, vs. Oklahoma City and vs. Utah. To be blunt, the Pistons will likely lose all six.

If anyone will match Detroit, it may be the Timberwolves, particularly with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns out indefinitely with a wrist injury. Minnesota’s next six games may include plausibly-winnable games at Orlando and against the Dallas Mavericks, but the Timberwolves have already strung together losing streaks of 11 and 13 games this season. The trade deadline may have reinvented most of Minnesota’s roster, but Towns’ absence may spur another notable losing streak.

If any of these teams might separate itself with wins, it would be the Knicks. They started 4-18 under David Fizdale but have gone 13-20 since under interim head coach Mike Miller. That latter winning rate would have New York at 21 or 22 wins currently, if spread across the entire season to date. Continuing at that pace should distance the Knicks from the best lottery odds, albeit just to still plenty desirable chances.

If such a shift occurs in Cleveland under freshly-instated head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, then suddenly this lottery-driven stretch run may include only the Timberwolves and Pistons. The Hawks’ moves at the deadline — namely trading for Clint Capela and Dewayne Dedmon — suggest their time pursuing the most ping-pong balls has ended. Their results underscore the value of rising in the lottery no matter the draft; landing Trae Young may be best remembered, but the less-heralded drafting of De’Andre Hunter is increasingly paying off.

The 2020 version of notable tanking is more a selective stagger, one likely to apply to only a couple franchises — currently squabbling over a mere 1.5 percent in lottery odds. In any other avenue of life, that would hardly be enough to fret over, but when it may be the difference in landing Anthony Edwards, James Wiseman or LaMelo Ball, that 1.5 percent still means a great deal to these franchises.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run – Atlantic Division

Ben Nadeau praises the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, while also gently eulogizing another season gone wrong for both teams in New York.

Ben Nadeau

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The Stretch Run.

With 20-odd games remaining on the schedule, it’s officially make-or-break time for the majority of the league — unless your franchise rhymes with Los Shamjealous or Hillmockie, of course. With tantalizing lottery picks for those that bottom out or home-court postseason revenue for teams that push forward, the post-All-Star break jockeying is always fascinating.

As of Feb. 20, however, most of the Eastern Conference — and particularly so, the Atlantic Division — is cut and dried. From hyped-up expectations to the somewhat-disappointing, one of the conference’s perennially-strongest divisions is looking robust once again. Although all of them presumably lag behind the Giannis Antetokounmpo-led Bucks, the bloodbath for the right to face Milwaukee appears to be better than ever.

But before even getting into the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets’ varying playoff hopes, a rapid-fire eulogy for the New York Knicks must first be had. Fans who once dreamt off trotting out Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Zion Williamson — but ask the Nets and New Orleans Pelicans how life without them went, to be fair — had to settle for trading away Marcus Morris at the trade deadline earlier this month.

At 17-38, there are only a handful of franchises worse off in the standings department — Minnesota, Atlanta, Cleveland and Golden State — and absurdity continues to reign in Manhattan. David Fizdale was unceremoniously ousted in December and was replaced by interim head coach Mike Miller, who was then (accidentally) dissed by Steve Stoute on an ESPN morning show. Even Steve Mills was out as president after tapping Leon Rose, another superagent turned front office executive.

On the roster side, Frank Ntilikina is playing less than ever, the aforementioned Morris led the team in points per game (19.6) and Bobby Portis already shot down any idea of a buyout. Kevin Knox, 20, has seen his minutes and averages nearly halved, while Mitchell Robinson has only played more than 25 minutes on 18 occasions. The Knicks desperately have searched for continuity and clarity only to come up empty-handed time and time again.

Thankfully, RJ Barrett looks like the real deal and, according to Marc Berman of The New York Post, the Knicks have begun to look at the upcoming draft to nail down a scoring point guard as the next franchise cornerstone.

With some real, tangible turnover in New York — and some incredibly solid youngsters to boot — it’s far too early to anoint the franchise as revitalized, but they’ve taken some important first steps toward doing so.

And despite stealing away Durant and Irving during the offseason, their cross-river rivals in Brooklyn haven’t fared much better at all. Irving, when he’s played, has been sensational — unfortunately, he’s reached the floor in just 20 total games thus far and is now out indefinitely (again) after re-aggravating that troublesome right shoulder (again). The 27-year-old point guard missed the All-Star Game for the first time since 2015-16 and his season — plus whatever lingering postseason hopes the Nets had — are quickly setting. Durant, as planned, hasn’t logged a minute yet — and likely won’t — while Rodions Kurucs hasn’t matched last year’s breakout campaign and Joe Harris has seen a considerable drop from three-point range too.

At 25-28, Brooklyn owns the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference, some 2.5 games ahead of the Orlando Magic. It’s hard to imagine the Nets falling out of the postseason entirely — the ninth-seeded Washington Wizards are just 20-33 — but there’s little chance they catch the Indiana Pacers at No. 6, especially following the return of Victor Oladipo. If Irving is shelved for much longer and Durant sits out the entire year, the Nets’ best-case scenario becomes stealing a postseason game from Milwaukee or Toronto before bowing out in the first round.

After arguably winning the offseason, it’s a tough pill to swallow in Brooklyn — but, at the very least, there are undeniable better days ahead.

And then that leaves three: Toronto, Boston and Philadelphia.

Today, at 34-21, the 76ers are the most disappointing of the bunch as they often struggle to play to both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid’s strengths at once. Simmons, 23, for all his other-worldly playmaking — and previous talk of a summertime-made jumper — has only attempted six three-pointers in 2019-20. The defense is as fearful as ever and rates at 106.1 — good for fourth-best, but sadly behind the Celtics, Raptors and Bucks — so counting the 76ers out of a deep playoff run would be downright shameful.

But in back-to-back-to-back contests before the All-Star break, the 76ers lost to the Celtics, Miami HEAT — the franchise occupying the No. 4 seed ahead of them — and Bucks. The deadline fits of both Glenn Robinson III and Alec Burks need some time, but Philadelphia is one of the few legitimate contenders in the conference that actually tried to improve their roster this month — which speaks to the still-strong internal hopes of the franchise.

Just as the Nets are nearly locked into the No. 7 or 8 seed, the 76ers won’t drop any lower than sixth place either. And although both Boston and Toronto have gained an inch of separation in the conference hierarchy, Philadelphia now finds themselves in the midst of a three-team brawl for home-court advantage in the first round. With Philadelphia’s unbelievable ceiling of potential and inherent inconsistency, it’s too early to predict where exactly they’ve fall come playoff time — but, make no mistake, this is a roster no opposing team will be excited to face.

On the other hand, Boston is peaking at just the right time as head coach Brad Stevens continues to push all the right buttons. Jayson Tatum, fresh off his first-ever All-Star berth, is a force to be reckoned with (22.4 points, 6.9 rebounds) and Kemba Walker has found himself right at home in the Garden. Surely the Celtics would love to avoid the Bucks for as long as possible and to do so, they’ll need to skip Toronto over the season’s final few months — however, even without Kawhi Leonard, that’s easier said than done.

The Celtics boast top-five ratings on both sides of the ball and, in spite of everybody’s doomsday-worthy proclamations, the 1-2 punch of Enes Kanter and Daniel Theis under the rim have more than sufficed. It’ll begin to sound like a repetitive cliche — and just wait for Toronto to fill out this trifecta — but Boston is still Boston: Hard-nosed and even harder-working, they’re an absolute shoo-in for home-court advantage in the first round at the very least.

But the Raptors currently stand as the Atlantic Division crown jewel, ready as ever to defend their conference throne.

You know the details by now: Leonard is dealt to Toronto and he wins the city their first-ever championship ring before signing with Los Angeles last July. Without last weekend’s All-Star MVP in tow, the Raptors were expected to sharply fall down the standings — playoffs, maybe, but this? Certainly not.

This is domination. This is an elite defensive unit. This is a franchise that not only lived on after their superstar left — but then thrived off that departure. Sans Leonard, the Raptors are only 40-15, good for the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. Crazier, right now, the Raptors are on pace to win as many regular-season games as they did with Leonard.

If not for the single-digit loss Bucks, they’d probably be the NBA’s darling story of the season once again. Pascal Siakam, 25, has blossomed into superstardom — 23.5 points, 7.5 rebounds — and is a more-than-worthy mark to pin the franchise’s back-to-back hopes upon. But perhaps even more impressive is Toronto’s ability to shuffle through next-man-up cards with reckless abandon. In fact, post-All-Star break, Terence Davis, an undrafted rookie, is the only player to have featured in all 55 games.

Every major member outside of OG Anunoby has missed a chunk of the season, too: Fred VanVleet, 10; Pascal Siakam, 11; Serge Ibaka, 11; Kyle Lowry, 12; Norman Powell, 17; Marc Gasol, 20.

And yet, they relentlessly compete like bonafide champions.

Toronto is likely destined for a second-round showdown with either Boston and Philadelphia — that much seems ultimately clear. But in the conference’s suddenly-thickening race to the top, for the first time in a long time, it’s still anybody’s best guess as to who will come out on top. Simply put, if you want star power — bank on Simmons, Embiid and the 76ers. If you want pedigreed basketball on both sides of the floor — there’s Walker, Tatum and the Celtics.

But if you want to back a franchise that was left for relative dead mere months after hoisting a championship trophy — well, Siakam, Lowry and the Raptors may just be the heavyweight title contender the conference has been waiting for.

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NBA Daily: Collin Sexton’s First All-Star Weekend A Success

Spencer Davies looks back at Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton’s first-time experience at NBA All-Star weekend in Chicago.

Spencer Davies

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It was early Friday afternoon at the Wintrust Arena in Chicago, the stage was set to kick off a laid-back weekend of celebration on NBA All-Star Weekend and commend the hard work of the brightest young talents, both national and international, the league had to offer.

The events of the 72-hour spectacle are meant to be enjoyed, connecting with others and soaking in the experience as a reward rather than being a full-on competition. Added to the U.S. Team roster as a replacement for injured Miami HEAT rookie Tyler Herro, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton did just that. Between a multitude of media appearances in the bright lights with cameras all around, the 21-year-old upstart took advantage of the opportunities to expose his personality to a national audience.

But amidst the fun, Sexton still went the extra mile as he always does. Phil Handy, a former Cavaliers assistant who worked famously with Kyrie Irving and the man that conducted Sexton’s pre-draft workout with Cleveland, was the head coach of the U.S. Team. So the one they call Young Bull decided to take full advantage with a post-practice workout when the floor cleared.

“[He’s worked with] great guards, yeah. He’s a great guy,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “He just told me to continue to get better, continue to work, continue to strive to be great. He talked to me a little bit about Kobe [Bryant] and his time with him, so I just got a good takeaway from him.”

Additional work at a practice to improve his game and prepare for an exhibition contest during a time that was meant for fun? It’s par for the course in his world. Just weeks prior following the Cavaliers’ loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on the road, a team source revealed to Basketball Insiders that Sexton went to Cleveland’s practice facility after landing in Northeast Ohio in the early morning hours to hone his craft.

“Dude’s motor doesn’t stop,” the source said.

“Oh naw, I work hard. When I feel like…if I’m on the court, I’mma do whatever I’ve gotta do. No days off, whatever,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders of his never-ending drive. “If it’s taking care of my body or just stretching or lifting, it’s not always about shooting and stuff like that. You’ve just gotta do the little things and that’s going to help you in the future.”

Though Sexton wasn’t used to the kind of attention he was receiving in the Windy City, he was determined to prove that he belongs. Usually taking a business-like approach to downplay things of this nature, he admitted how amazing it felt to achieve the milestone and be a part of the most popular three-day stretch the NBA has to offer.

“I feel like all my hard work, it paid off. So I’m glad to be here, especially with these group of guys, really good group. It’s an honor,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders that Friday morning.

Among star-studded sophomore names such as Luka Doncic and Trae Young, as well as human-highlight-reel rookies like Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, a motivated Sexton made his mark on the floor.

In 20 minutes of action, he poured in 21 points, nabbed five rebounds and dished out three assists. He shot 9-for-14 from the field, including three triples on six tries. And he even had a reverse jam on a bounce pass to himself, though he joked that it was “kinda weak.”

“At first, I was just chillin’ out there, wasn’t playing too hard. Then, you know, I can turn it on pretty quick,” Sexton said.

“Honestly, I just go out there and just play my game. Honestly, no matter who I’m put in the room with, I’mma do what I do,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “It’s exciting just because of like all the attention they bring, but me, being myself . . . I’m a dog too, so I’mma go out there and show everybody that I can represent as well.”

Sexton was the 20th Cavalier in franchise history to represent the team in the Rising Stars game since its inception in 1994. With a grin on his face naming those wine-and-golders who came before him, he was thinking ahead about the teammates that could now follow his lead.

Basketball Insiders saw a side of Sexton that hasn’t been seen much in Cleveland. He started a long media tour Thursday with a Yahoo-sponsored pop-a-shot contest followed it up with an NBA TV sitdown interview alongside Dennis Scott. While the next day was entirely centered on Rising Stars, he continued Saturday with an appearance for Metro By T-Mobile during a media-player role reversal contest and finished off at a Mountain Dew barbershop sit down with the legendary Scottie Pippen and other notorious players from the league.

Through all of the losing, through all of the tumultuous nature of his one-and-a-half seasons with the Cavaliers — who are hiring their fourth coach since the 2018 NBA Draft — Sexton is not going to change his approach. He’s not going to change who he is. He’s not going to veer into a different path because of another shift in direction.

“It’s a great experience for me just to take my bumps and bruises, to go out there and pretty much just play hard each and every night, and that’s what I’mma do,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “It’s tough losing because no one wants to lose. I feel like we’re moving in the right directions and we’ll get better and start winning.”

Whether people want to believe it or not, what he’s doing is working just fine.

All-Star Weekend proved it.

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