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The Finals: Who’s Got Next?

Buddy Grizzard looks at the teams that are best positioned to shove their way into championship contention.

Buddy Grizzard

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With Kevin Durant added to a Golden State Warriors core that already had two trips to the Finals and one NBA championship under its belt, the superteam era looks poised to continue for years into the future. LeBron James has led his teams to seven straight NBA Finals appearances, while the Spurs remain potent after a 61-win regular season. But who’s got next? What teams are positioned to elbow their way into that contender conversation?

In this piece we’ll look at teams that are a few moves away from entering that rarified air of contender status. The Warriors look poised to make a series of Finals appearances that could equal or exceed the four straight of James’ previous superteam, the Miami HEAT. The following are teams that could challenge that dominance in the coming seasons with the right personnel decisions.

Boston Celtics

The team most ready to rise to contender status is the Celtics, thanks to a masterful series of moves by Boston’s president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. With the first of what will likely be three consecutive high lottery picks that Ainge fleeced from the Nets, he selected Jaylen Brown, among this season’s most productive rookies. As fate would have it, the Celtics gained this year’s top overall pick in a draft heavy with point guards, Boston’s position of least need.

But a look at the Celtics’ cap sheet shows a litany of team-friendly contracts that show what a thorough job Ainge has done of positioning Boston to move into contention. All-Star Isaiah Thomas enters the final year of a deal that will pay a mere $6.3 million. Avery Bradley is likewise entering a final year in which he’ll earn $8.8 million. And Jae Crowder has three years remaining on the most absurdly team-friendly contract in the NBA, which will scale from next season’s $6.8 million to $7.8 in 2019-20. Thanks to Ainge’s stellar work in the draft, free agency and trades, Boston has the flexibility to take multiple paths to contention.

If the Celtics keep this year’s pick rather than package it in a blockbuster trade for a player the caliber of Chicago’s Jimmy Butler or Indiana’s Paul George, it seems almost certain Ainge will select Washington point guard Markelle Fultz. This would create a huge logjam at point guard, where Boston already has Thomas, Marcus Smart and the very promising Terry Rozier. With the top end of the draft light on front court prospects, where the Celtics could use the most help, Ainge will surely take the best player available and deal with the consequences later.

Meanwhile, Boston will explore every additional avenue to improve. Crowder did not appreciate Boston fans’ infatuation with Jazz small forward Gordon Hayward. But given the challenges facing the Celtics’ front court, he may need to reconsider. Amir Johnson was a shell of himself in the playoffs, averaging a mere 2.6 points and 2.1 rebounds despite nine starts. He may not be back, while Kelly Olynyk duplicates the finesse, floor-stretching front court role of Al Horford. If Boston is able to add Hayward, coach Brad Stevens’ former understudy at Butler, Crowder could see a lot of minutes next season at the power forward position.

Even if Boston fails to execute a major trade or obtain Hayward, the Celtics will still be players in free agency thanks to Ainge’s brilliant work within the salary cap. Regardless of any potential duplication, Boston should look to add as many impact players as it can. If all else fails, the Celtics could still pursue four-time All-Star and current Atlanta Hawk Paul Millsap or Blake Griffin of the Clippers. Boston was impressive this season, winning the East’s top playoff seed. But look for the Celtics to be even tougher next season after adding multiple significant pieces this summer.

Utah Jazz

For the Jazz, a lot will depend on Boston’s success or failure at prying away Hayward. If Utah fails to get Hayward under contract, Rudy Gobert and the oft-injured Alec Burks are the only players signed to guaranteed contracts beyond next season. It could send the organization spiraling into a years-long rebuild after it impressively and unexpectedly reached 51 wins and the second round of the playoffs this season.

If Hayward stays, the Jazz has Derrick Favors and Joe Johnson under contract for next season as Utah’s mostly young core enters its prime together. The Jazz will of course also need to retain point guard George Hill, who proved to be exactly the sort of steady, veteran presence Utah needed to reach its potential. Retain those key free agents and much will depend on health and the continued development of the younger players. Rodney Hood struggled to score in the playoffs, but he shot a career-high 37 percent from three in the regular season. He appears to be a player who could reach another gear and help the Jazz reach greater heights.

As with any team, the limiting factor will be health. As impressive as Utah’s season was, think what the team could have achieved if not decimated by so many injuries to key players. With the right moves in free agency and better luck with injuries next season, the Jazz could top 55 wins and be even more formidable in the playoffs.

Houston Rockets

As impressive as Utah was, no team over-achieved more this season than the Rockets. Projected by many observers to be a fringe playoff team, Houston amassed 55 wins in the brutal Western Conference, a win total higher than every team except Golden State and San Antonio. James Harden cemented his MVP candidacy by crushing Russell Westbrook and Oklahoma City in the first round before running out of gas in the Conference Semifinals against the Spurs.

Houston GM Daryl Morey made a huge gamble by signing Ryan Anderson to a four-year, $80 million contract and making a total commitment to the three-pointer. This approach and coach Mike D’Antoni’s daring gambit in moving Harden to full-time point guard brought Houston within two wins of the Conference Finals. Harden, Anderson, Patrick Beverley and Eric Gordon — who experienced a renaissance season — are all under contract for at least two more seasons. Trevor Ariza and Lou Williams each have one year left.

Among the team’s significant contributors, only Nene will be a free agent this summer. However, Houston’s roster stability cuts both ways. With so many players under contract, Houston lacks the kind of roster flexibility enjoyed by the Celtics. For the Rockets to take that next step to true contention, the only available path will be through internal improvement. D’Antoni will have to find a way to extend the minutes of his bench to avoid a repeat of this season when Houston looked gassed in the second round. The Rockets’ best opportunity to take the next step will be for one of its young frontcourt pieces — Clint Capela, Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker — to make a significant leap next season.

Toronto Raptors

Like the Jazz, the Raptors failed to reach their full potential in the playoffs due to bad luck with injuries. As with the Rockets, the Raptors have multiple core pieces wrapped up on multi-year deals. Raptors president Masai Uriji will have to break the bank if he hopes to retain both Kyle Lowry and trade acquisition Serge Ibaka. If Lowry returns and Toronto reaches the playoffs relatively healthy, this is a team that proved in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals that it can challenge the Cavaliers.

Fail to retain Lowry, however, and the Raptors will have almost no chance of replacing him with an equally-talented point guard. Like the Jazz, Toronto must either pay up to retain the team’s starting point guard or possibly see all the work that brought the team to the brink of contention go to waste.

L.A. Clippers

The Clippers get an honorable mention here because, despite rumblings of chemistry issues and Doc Rivers’ inability to assemble a competent bench, it’s hard to imagine Chris Paul and Griffin departing the NBA’s best market and leaving stacks of cash on the table. The Clippers disappointed by flaming out in the first round against the surprising Jazz. But if L.A.’s Big Three can all be healthy for the playoffs, this is a collection of talent that can make noise. The limiting factor will be Rivers’ ability to pull off a miracle by somehow conjuring a competent bench out of thin air.

Washington Wizards

Also a few steps behind the teams higher on this list are the Washington Wizards. The backcourt combination of John Wall and Bradley Beal outplayed their opposing starters in both playoff rounds. Markieff Morris was surprisingly effective on both sides of the ball. And Otto Porter followed up his breakout regular season with an impressive playoff run. The Wizards will have to fend off multiple suitors who will seek to convince Porter to sign an offer sheet in restricted free agency. But if he’s retained, Washington will again have one of the NBA’s best starting units regardless of what happens with center Marcin Gortat.

As with the Clippers, Washington’s only real chance to ascend to contender status will be a massive overhaul of the bench. Kelly Oubre Jr., despite Wall’s campaigning for him to receive more minutes, was largely ineffective in the playoffs. So too was mid-season trade acquisition Bojan Bogdanovic. The Wizards would do well to make retaining Porter the priority, but general manager Ernie Grunfeld will have his work cut out in addressing the lack of depth.

Among the teams mentioned, the Celtics are clearly the closest to challenging an incumbent conference champion for a spot in next year’s NBA Finals. But the Jazz, Rockets and Raptors could also enter that conversation if everything breaks right this summer. For the Clippers and Wizards, it’s going to take a massive bench overhaul that will be very difficult to execute to break through to the next level. Cleveland and Golden State may continue to monopolize the NBA Finals in future seasons, but these are the teams standing on the sidelines calling next if either team stumbles.

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Payton Blocking Out Trade Talk, Believes Magic Will Turn It Around

Spencer Davies sits down with Elfrid Payton to discuss his fourth year, trade rumors and a trying season for Orlando in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.

Spencer Davies

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It’s hard for a team to look for positives when it’s living in the basement.

The Orlando Magic have had a rough go of it this year. They’re 13-32 at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, they’ve have had a ton of setbacks, and they currently rank 29th in the NBA in defensive rating.

There is a bright spot hidden in there, though, and head coach Frank Vogel sees it growing as the season progresses.

“We’re frustrated with our record, but we’re encouraged with the development we’ve had with our young players,” Vogel said before Thursday’s game in Cleveland. “Aaron Gordon, Mario [Hezonja], and [Elfrid Payton] have all had strong individual seasons and continue to get better. All those guys are improving individually and at some point, it’s gonna lead to more Ws.”

While Gordon stands out more to some than the others because of his star appeal, Payton is right up there with him as far as making the next step goes.

“Elfrid’s shooting the ball better from the perimeter and at the rim,” Vogel said. “He’s worked on his left hand. He’s worked on his floaters. Shooting 52 percent from the field and that’s pretty darn good for a point guard, and the 39 percent from the three as well.”

Those are your more traditional statistics that don’t address the leap he’s taken in efficiency. Sure, Payton’s scoring the same amount of points per game, but it’s the way he’s been getting that’s been most noticeable.

According to Basketball-Reference and NBA.com, he’s making nearly 70 percent of his tries between 0-3 feet and ranks third among point guards in restricted field goal percentage (min. four attempts).

But Payton doesn’t like to evaluate himself using numbers, so he doesn’t know how to feel about how he’s played for Orlando this year.

“It’s tough to say because I like to measure my success by winning and we haven’t been doing that,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “So tough to say.”

He’s not kidding. Since starting out the season 8-4, the Magic have taken a hard fall, only winning five games since November 10. In this stretch, there have been three hefty losing streaks—two 9-game slides and most recently a 7-game skid.

“Not to make excuses—we had a lot of injuries,” Payton told Basketball Insiders of what happened. “Haven’t really been playing with the group of guys that we started the season with, so kinda derailed us a little bit.”

As the losses pile up, so does the chatter. Indicated by multiple recent reports, Orlando has made it clear that many players on the roster are available on the trade block. Evan Fournier, Mario Hezonja, and Payton were recently brought up as names who could possibly on the move if the right deal presents itself.

When asked about the rumblings, Vogel claimed he doesn’t have a message for his guys.

“They understand it’s part of the business,” he said. “Just focus on playing the game.”

Like his coach, Payton doesn’t have a reaction to the noise.

“I don’t get caught up into the things like that,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “Today I’m an Orlando Magic. I play for the Orlando Magic and I’m gonna give them 100 percent of me. I’m somebody that likes to finish what I started, so I definitely would like to see this through and try to turn this organization around.”

So who does he see on this team that can help jump-start the process in flipping the script?

“Everybody,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “I like Vuc. I like AG. Evan [Fournier] is somebody who can fill it up. T Ross is somebody who can fill it up when healthy. I think we have a lot of talent on this team. Even the rookies—Wes [Iwundu] plays well for us in stretches. Jon [Isaac] when he was playing he’d do well.

“You could see the potential there. So I think we have a lot of weapons on this team. I’m very confident in the group we have here. I think we have a lot of talent, we just have to do it.”

Saying you’re going to right the ship is one thing. Actually doing it is a whole other challenge. With where the Magic sit in the standings currently, their work is cut out for them. That being said, Payton isn’t giving up.

In fact, he’s still got his eyes on making it to the postseason, and it starts with him.

“Definitely trying to get a run going,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “Make a playoff push. It’s definitely not out of sight right now, especially with the way the East is. We win a few games and we right back in the thick of things.

“Do whatever I can to help us to get more wins, man. I think that’s what it all boils down to. I figure if I’m playing well, that means we’re winning for the most part.”

Defense matters the most, and it’s something Payton and his group know they need to get better at if they have a chance to play past mid-April.

“Just be tied in together a little bit more,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “I think sometimes we have too many breakdowns on the backside. So just being more in-tune with each other.”

One thing is for sure—Orlando is going through this difficult time as a team, but refuses to fold. Payton says Vogel has constantly stayed in their ears with uplifting advice.

“Keep fighting,” Payton told Basketball Insiders of his words. “Don’t feel sorry for yourself. No one’s gonna feel sorry for you, so just keep fighting.”

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NBA Daily: Three Teams Treading Water In The West

While the Clippers have surged into the playoff picture, the Blazers, Nuggets and Pelicans are barely staying afloat out West.

Buddy Grizzard

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While the L.A. Clippers have surged into the Western Conference playoff picture on the crest of a six-game win streak, the Trail Blazers, Nuggets and Pelicans are stumbling toward the All-Star break with records around .500 over their last 10 games.

All four teams are within a game of each other and hovering around the playoff cut line. For teams that are treading water, the second half of the season will be a struggle for consistency in a brutal playoff race that promises to leave a good team on the outside looking in.

Although Richard Jefferson is winding down a storied career and barely playing for the Nuggets, he often takes the role of elder statesman in media scrums. After the Nuggets became the latest victim of the red-hot Clippers Wednesday, Jefferson said they should not be underestimated.

“They’ve been a playoff team for many, many years,” said Jefferson. “They’ve dealt with some injuries but, for the most part, I think they’re going to be in the hunt for the playoffs just like we are.”

Jefferson was also asked about the Nuggets’ late-game execution and pointed to the team’s overall youth with major addition Paul Millsap missing extended time due to injury.

“We’re getting to a spot of being a little bit more consistent in those moments,” said Jefferson. “But ultimately, I think guys are still learning. Most of the guys that are in these positions are in these positions for the first time. I think we’ll continue getting better as the season goes on.”

Meanwhile, the Pelicans experienced its own setback Wednesday in a loss to an Atlanta Hawks team that’s tied for the second-worst record in the league. For now, the Pelicans hold the seventh seed. It will be up to the continuing evolution of the Anthony Davis-DeMarcus Cousins pairing to keep New Orleans trending in the right direction.

“For us, we’re two guys who can shoot the ball, handle it, pass,” said Davis after the loss in Atlanta. “We’ve got a lot of guys around us who are capable of making plays. I think we compliment each other. There’s still some stuff we still want to get better at as a unit.”

Davis went into further detail about what makes the rare pairing of two elite big men work.

“Cuz is always spacing the floor,” said Davis. “One guy’s inside, the other one’s outside. We set screens for each other, throw lobs for each other. So it’s tough for bigs to try to play that. When we set a pin-down for myself or DeMarcus, most four or fives are not used to that.”

Davis came into the game with 30 or more points in three straight games and seven of the previous 10—he’s been on a massive roll. However, that streak came to an end as Davis hit only two of eight shots for eight points. Hawks rookie John Collins scored 18 while dealing with the issues Davis described.

“You’ve got A.D. on the one hand and then you’ve got Boogie on the other hand,” said Collins. “[They’re] some of the best bigs in the league, very skilled guys, obviously a handful to deal with.”

Hawks shooting guard Kent Bazemore led Atlanta with 20 points and hit the final shot in the waning moments to secure the victory. Bazemore is a player the Pelicans could conceivably pursue at the trade deadline to address wing issues.

Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers are dealing with questions of whether a team built around Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum can become competitive with the West’s upper echelon. Marc Stein of the New York Times went so far as to predict that Portland’s backcourt could be broken up this year.

“No one’s suggesting it’ll happen before the Feb. 8 trade deadline,” Stein wrote. “But Portland’s latest so-so season threatens to be the impetus that finally pushes the longtime Blazers owner Paul Allen in a new direction.”

This is the time of year when NBA teams take stock and have to decide if they are properly constructed or need to look at changes. With the Pelicans, Trail Blazers and Nuggets barely keeping pace in the playoff race, few other teams will be more heavily scrutinized — internally as well as externally — as the trade deadline approaches.

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NBA Daily: Things To Watch Heading Into Trade Season

Two of our experts identify four teams and four players to keep an eye on during trade season.

Basketball Insiders

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With memories of DeMarcus Cousins being told that he was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans during his postgame availability at last season’s All-Star game, the NBA moved the trade deadline up.

This season, the deadline falls on February 8, and all there has been a lot of discussion leading into next month’s deadline.

We asked Moke Hamilton and Lang Greene to weigh in on some items to keep an eye on over the next three weeks.

Nikola Mirotic and Derrick Favors

This year’s trade deadline will probably lack big names getting moved, but teams such as the Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets are within sniffing distance of a playoff berth for the first time in years. It will be interesting to see if their respective front offices swing for the fences to achieve the goal.

There are three ways to improve a roster or prepare for the future in the NBA. The methods are free agency, trade and the annual draft. Trade deadline deals are risky. There are a lot of deals each season which involve players on the verge of hitting the free agent market. Teams acquiring these take the risk that they’re only “renting” those guys until the season concludes.

At the end of the day, though, the two biggest names we may see moved are Nikola Mirotic and Derrick Favors.

Mirotic has been plagued by inconsistency throughout his career, but the fourth-year forward is by far having his best season as a professional despite his minutes remaining flat. On a per 36 minute basis, Mirotic is averaging 25.1 points and 9.9 rebounds.

Mirotic and teammate Bobby Portis made headlines before the season for their fight, which led plenty of missed time for the forward. Mirotic’s name has been mentioned on the block ever since this incident, but it’s clear the Bulls have integrated him back into their rotation fully. Still, the team is believed to simply be waiting for the right time and trade partner and that Mirotic’s days in Chicago are numbered.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the Bulls plan to be patient in fielding calls for Mirotic, while the player has deflected all talks to his representatives.

“I didn’t talk to [the Bulls’ front office recently],” he said. “Probably my agents are talking, so I don’t know so far what’s going on, but I know my name is going to be out there. I’m doing my job, and I’m sure they’re doing their job, and we’re both going to do what’s best for the team.”

Mirotic has a no-trade clause built into his contract and would have to waive it prior to completing any deal, unless the Bulls were to guarantee the team option on the final year of his contract for 2018-19. Don’t count on that, though.

With respect to Favors, he battled injuries the past two seasons but has remained relatively healthy to begin this campaign. The forward is shooting a career high from the field, but according to the Salt Lake Tribune, the Utah Jazz have dangled him in trade talks since the beginning of the season.

Favors was one of the central parts of the Deron Williams trade years ago, but could be expendable because of the emergence of center Rudy Gobert in the Jazz’s frontcourt. The forward is on the books for $12.5 million this season and was most recently linked to the aforementioned Mirotic in trade talks between Utah and Chicago.

– Lang Greene

DeAndre Jordan and Paul George

Heading into deadline season, there’s not much out there to suggest that we’ll see any superstar-caliber players moved. With the likes of Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving among the players that switched teams over the summer, it seems that most NBA teams that have difference-makers on their rosters are in construction mode—they’re trying to compete with the Cavs or the Warriors.

The two superstar players who merit some discussion, though, are DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan.

With respect to Jordan, the Clippers find themselves in a very peculiar situation. With Chris Paul having defected to the Houston Rockets, it’s easy to conclude that the Clippers are no longer a true contender. Still, they’ve played so well over the past few weeks (including scoring a victory over Paul and his Rockets) that it seems a difficult proposition to proactively pull the plug.

Still, though, as written in this past Sunday’s column, it’s time for the Clippers to trade Jordan, mainly because a team that is heading toward a rebuild can’t afford to lose a player of his caliber for nothing, and that’s quite possible unless the Clippers fork over a max contract to Jordan this summer. The proposition wouldn’t be wise, particularly because it could cost the Clippers a first round pick in one of the upcoming drafts.

He’s definitely a player that should be watched.

Paul George, on the other hand, doesn’t appear likely to be headed out of Oklahoma City. The team is reportedly committed to keeping him for the duration of the season, with the hope being that the Thunder will get their act together and win a round or two in the playoffs. With the team still hovering around .500, it seems a long shot.

There are some, however, that believe that the Thunder should at least see what might be available to them in exchange for George, especially with the team trading Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for him. That’s especially true with Oladipo closing in on what certainly appears to be his first All-Star selection.

– Moke Hamilton

Dallas Mavericks Are Open For Business

The Dallas Mavericks are in a clear rebuild and the prospect of making the playoffs is more dream than reality this season, but the team does have some things going for it.

The Mavs have roughly $13 million in cap space, which puts them in a prime spot to acquire talent at the deadline without giving up any of their players in return. In fact, Mark Cuban went on the record and said exactly that.

“I would say we are looking to use our cap space actively,” Cuban told the Dallas Morning News earlier this week. “We will take back salary to get picks or guys we think can play.”

The Mavericks have the second-lowest payroll in the league, but Cuban has been known to spend money to acquire relevant talent. The team hasn’t had much success in in attracting free agents in recent years, and with the Hall of Fame career of Dirk Nowitzki coming to an end, the team is undoubtedly looking to retool.

– Lang Greene

Cavs and Lakers Each Likely To Do Something

It’s a poorly kept secret that the Los Angeles Lakers have had their sights set on acquiring a superstar or two this coming summer. With Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins and LeBron James among those who could hit the market in July, the Lakers have quite a bit of incentive to try to rid themselves of the contracts of Luol Deng and Jordan Clarkson.

Where things get interesting for the Lakers is with the emergence of several of their young players this season. Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Kyle Kuzma and to a lesser extent Josh Hart have each given the team impressive minutes this season. If the Lakers feel they have a real shot at signing James and, say, DeMarcus Cousins, it may be enough for them to package Deng and/or Clarkson with one of their promising young players and perhaps a future draft pick.

It’s certainly something I’d keep my eyes on.

And speaking of future draft picks, with the Cavs not taking their standing in the Eastern Conference for granted, one can only wonder the extent to which the Nets’ first round pick this coming season is burning a hole in their pockets. Aside from the Nets pick, though, the Cavs do own their own first round pick, which could be enough for them to pry the likes of a player like Mirotic or Favors from their current team.

There has also been some conjecture revolving around the availability of Tristan Thompson, with one interesting scenario having the Cavs and Clippers at least contemplating a trade involving Thompson and Jordan.

The Cavs and Lakers each have too much at stake to not do something.

– Moke Hamilton

Only 21 Days To Go…

With the trade deadline exactly three weeks from today, talks will certainly heat up.

For now, though, the Mavs, Cavs and Lakers appear to be the teams most involved in conversations, with Nikola Mirotic, Derrick Favors and DeAndre Jordan among those most likely to be dealt.

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