The early portion of the NBA season is fun for lots of reasons – namely, it helps determine which teams are contenders and those that aren’t. Additionally, it allows teams to gauge and grade their rosters. And on December 15, when newly signed players can be traded, the NBA season shifts gears from fun to cut-throat.
So with that beings said, let’s forge ahead with Basketball Insiders examination of buyers and sellers. We have already covered the Northwest, Southwest and Central divisions. Today, we’ll turn our attention to the Atlantic.
Boston Celtics 17-7 — Buyers
The Celtics have surprised most NBA experts so far this season. But not only because they’re playing well; more so due to looking significantly better than last season despite losing a top-flight point guard (Kyrie Irving), a workhouse center (Al Horford) and then replacing them with less talented players.
The Celtics are 17-7 through 24 games — good for fourth place in the conference. Entering Friday night, they’re playing at essentially the same pace as last season (99.2 possessions per 48 minutes vs. 99.6 in 2018-19), but with an average margin of victory of 7.86 (up from. 4.44), which is the fourth-best margin of victory in the league.
But it’s unlikely that the Celtics are satisfied with their early-season successes. And if they hope to crash the Milwaukee Bucks’ party and represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals, they’ll need some to add some depth to their frontcourt.
Despite being nearly 30 percent of the way through the season, the Celtics still need to shore up the center position. They entered the season with a by-committee approach from the beginning and they’ve stuck to it so far by starting Daniel Theis a whopping 18 times, Kanter three times and Robert Williams twice. Theis averages 21.8 minutes per game, compared to Kanter’s 15.8 and Williams’ 14.2. While the three-headed monster approach can be successful, they lack a true difference-maker.
They’ll need a more skilled and versatile center to put pressure on opposing big men like Joel Embiid and Al Horford, while also keeping the floor appropriately spaced. While good centers are hard to come by, the Celtics could package some combination of their rookies and future picks to entice a trade partner.
And it would be in their best interest to do so. Just look at their record against the Philadelphia 76ers this season. While it’s a ridiculously small sample size, their 0-2 record against Philadelphia, who boasts probably the biggest and best frontcourt in the league, should scare them into adding a big man before the deadline – and maybe as soon as this Sunday.
Brooklyn Nets (13-11) — Neither
The Nets have surprised folks, too — but unlike the Celtics, they did so through early struggles. With the newly acquired Kyrie Irving in tow, the Nets started the season by winning only four of their first 11 games – during which time, Caris LeVert suffered an injury, followed by Irving. And just like that, the sky was falling.
But then something monumental happened, proceedings just stabilized all at once. The Nets have won nine of their last 13 games since Irving’s injury. Spencer Dinwiddie stepped up, averaging 25.1 points per game in Irving’s absence. But it’s not all Dinwiddie. Since Irving went out, the Nets are 13th-best in net rating – compared to 20th with him in the lineup – and their chemistry looks much improved.
And what’s more, the Nets can still look forward to adding Irving back into the rotation. While they’ve struggled with him thus far, it’s not entirely Irving. After all, Irving’s return represents a major talent who was averaging 28.5 points and 7.2 assists per game. Dzanan Musa and Theo Pinson, too, have largely failed to fill in as the backup point guard too.
Sure, it’s going to take time to figure out their identity with Irving suited up. And the team must also welcome back LeVert and Wilson Chandler, who is set to return from a 25-game PED suspension on Sunday. But those are great problems to have.
Fortunately, the Nets’ 2019-20 season was always a placeholder until Kevin Durant returns from his Achilles injury. The team shouldn’t worry too much about a playoff run and, instead, they should be squarely focused on building exceptional team chemistry. And adding or subtracting to a newly-formed roster is a terrible way to do so.
Thus, playoffs or not, the Nets should spend the next three or so months learning one another’s styles and identifying their best rotations without tinkering.
New York Knicks (5-20) – Sellers
The Knicks are very obviously a dumpster fire. They have failed to properly develop their young talent through 25 games this year and prioritized playing time for a slew of their recently signed veteran free agents. Additionally, they panicked after a couple of 30-point losses and decided to fire coach head coach David Fizdale.
There are probably more firings to come. Rumors have begun to circulate about the job security of team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry. But regardless of who’s at the helm, the Knicks must move many of their recent signees to capitalize on their favorable contracts.
The vultures have already begun to circle. According to SNY’s Ian Begley, interested teams could be willing to part with a late first-round pick in exchange for Marcus Morris.
The team should also begin shopping Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis, Wayne Ellington, Reggie Bullock (who has been injured so far all season), Elfrid Payton and even Julius Randle. Cashing in on any of those players would be helpful to a team that is clearly still in the early stages of a rebuild.
And they should be looking to acquire young players who are still viewed as projects — like the Orlando Magic did with Markelle Fultz last season — and/or draft picks. Nothing else. Fit does not matter. Bring in as much talent as you can and see what sticks.
Philadelphia 76ers (19-7) – Buyers
The 76ers are another Atlantic Division buyer.
Despite losing Jimmy Butler to Miami and JJ Redick to New Orleans, the 76ers entered the season with extremely high expectations — and they’ve mostly lived up to them. They are 18-7 overall and 7-3 against teams who are .500 or better. Joel Embiid is better than ever and Al Horford appears to be hitting his stride in Philadelphia. Further, Josh Richardson has looked like an extremely promising fit when healthy and rookie Matisse Thybulle has performed better than anyone could have expected.
So what do the 76ers need to add? One thing: Shooting. The 76ers rank 26th in three-point attempts and the team is currently lacking a Redick-level three-point threat. We’ve all seen opposing defenses, as the Raptors did in the 2019 playoffs, go under screens and sag away from Ben Simmons. Expect more of that. And expect teams to willingly pack the paint to affect Embiid, Simmons and Horford until the team surrounds them with more shooters.
The 76ers should be targeting guys like Kevin Love, Robert Covington, Danilo Gallinari, Marcus Moris, Davis Bertans and even the aforementioned Reddick – any of whom would be an excellent addition if the 76ers could put together an acceptable offer. But that’s where things get challenging. Remember, the 76ers have approximately $126 million tied up in their core five (Embiid, Horford, Simmons, Richardson and Tobias Harris) for 2020-21.
Toronto Raptors (16-8) – Sellers
This may be an unpopular opinion, but this at its core, shouldn’t teams either compete for championships or set themselves up to do so? Obviously that’s easier said than done and there are a number of teams that don’t adhere to such strategy because of the primary driver of profitability.
That being said, the Raptors are coming off a championship and just lost a player that many believe is one of the three best alive. In all likelihood, they’re not quite ready for primetime again, despite what their record suggests. Toronto’s primary focus now should be building around their young talent and adding even more to a team that is already ahead of schedule.
Their roster isn’t well-aligned from an age standpoint, anyway. Their 25-year-old centerpiece (Pascal Siakam) and relatively young core are on a different trajectory than aging stars Kyle Lowry, 33, Marc Gasol, 34, and Serge Ibaka, 30. What’s more, Gasol and Ibaka are on expiring contracts that’ll be chased by contenders looking to add versatile big men – like Boston.
Lowry is different given what he’s meant to the team and the entire city of Toronto. There is a clear benefit to keeping him on as a locker room leader and having him retire a Raptor. Even if they wanted to move Lowry, it would be challenging as he’s signed through next season.
But that doesn’t mean that moving him isn’t worth exploring. Plenty of contenders would benefit from Lowry’s services, even with another season at $30.5 million. Lowry can still lead a team and he’s a fearless competitor. Cooler, the former All-Star has played better this year than in the previous two seasons, scoring 19.1 points in 37 minutes of action per night across 13 games.
Considering how unlikely the Raptors are to win the Eastern Conference again, they should seriously consider moving at least one of their slightly-older stars. It could be one of their last opportunities to add additional building blocks. And as we saw last February and in previous seasons, contenders make silly deals as the trade deadline approaches.
December is an extremely exciting time for the basketball world. Christmas Day represents the sport’s first real prime time opportunity of the young season. But for many, the holiday comes nine days early as teams can begin trading players who were signed last offseason.
But it doesn’t stop there, intensifying in the lead up to the Feb. 6 trade deadline. So let’s all sit back and enjoy the best time of the year, all kicking off in just two days.
Free Agency Update: Changes In The Bubble
Drew Maresca explores the free agency implications of the first week of play in the bubble as the NBA continues its return to post COVID-19 play.
Free agency is always a fun time for the NBA and its fans, but particularly so in 2020. Most free agents have usually earned their next deal by the 65th game of any given season – but this year is far from typical. Instead, the NBA has returned, sans its eight worst teams, meaning that competition is consistently better. And with limited competition for our attention, every game is a major event that draws more eyes and has a greater effect on the paydays of to-be free agents.
We’re still only three or four games into the official return of the NBA, but there have already been some changes to how we perceive some players. Take T.J. Warren, for example, who’s averaging over 39.7 points per game through three contests. Or Michael Porter Jr., who looks more like the focal point of a team than a player in his first year of professional action.
This article will focus explicitly on the changes in perception of free agents to-be as a result of their play in the bubble in Orlando. We understand that the players listed below can still hurt their standings and that teams rate free agents differently. While the sample size is small, we’ve seen deals made based on an equally small body of work (e.g., Jerome James to the New York Knicks).
One caveat to keep in mind is the unprecedented fiscal challenges facing the NBA and its club in 2020. Not only will the COVID-19 pandemic inevitably hurt the 2020-21 salary cap, but there’s also still a conclusion to be had with the preseason China situation.
With all of that in mind, let’s explore the players that have made the loudest cases for a payday come this offseason.
Mike Conley Jr., Utah Jazz – Player Option
Conley Jr. has a player option for 2020-21 – but he played poorly enough through March, relative to what we’ve come to expect from him, that it was more than reasonable to assume he would opt-in at $34.5 million.
But wait, there’s a chance that Conley does us all a favor and makes free agency 2020 more interesting. Conley’s averaged 19.8 points and 5.8 assists per game, way, way up from 13.8 points and 4.3 assists per game prior to the stoppage in March. If Conley keeps this going – and especially if he performs well in the playoffs – he might want to test the market considering the lack of elite talent that’s anticipated to hit it – assuming he’s unhappy in Utah, that is.
Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans – RFA
Ingram’s looked similar to the guy we saw in 2019-20 before the play stoppage – he’s averaging 23.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game when playing 30 or more minutes. While he was less effective in a loss against the Clippers (14 points and two rebounds in 24 minutes), he’s demonstrated growth in how decisively he makes his move and how seamlessly he then scores on the move.
Ingram was probably going to get max offer as of the All-Star break – especially after reaching his first All-Star team at 22 – but COVID-19 probably altered the ability for teams to dole out lucrative deals. But then play resumed and Ingram picked up right where he left off – and with a confidence to use it liberally. Ingram is nearly a lock for a max deal now.
Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors – UFA
VanVleet started off his time in the bubble with a solid performance (13 points and 11 assists), but he really showed out in his second game against the Miami HEAT. VanVleet led the Raptors to a win against Miami with a career-high 36 points. And then he got right back to being Mr. Consistent for Toronto by posting 21 points and 10 assists in a win against Orlando.
So ultimately, VanVleet has led the Raptors to a 3-0 (re)start, and he’s either scored a career-high or dropped 10-plus assists. James Dolan and Leon Rose are somewhere together – albeit socially distanced, we’re sure – drooling – as are all of the teams in need of a lead guard, like Detroit. VanVleet can only increase his value from here. He’s not assumed to be a max-level player, but if he plays well enough through the playoffs, it’ll be interesting to see just how high he can reach.
DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs – Player Option
It’s hard to imagine DeRozan’s value increasing much at this point in his career. After all, he’s an 11-year veteran that has been named to the All-Star Game four times and an All-NBA team twice.
But still, there’s always been presumed limitations to his game, namely his inability to shoot three-pointers. Since being traded to San Antonio, he’s fallen out of the national spotlight a bit. As a 31-year-old capable of reaching unrestricted free agency, DeRozan is at a major inflection point in his career. He could attempt to a final big deal or snag a smaller one if the market for his services doesn’t meet expectations. Or he could just opt-in.
But DeRozan has done his part to remind everyone that he has loads of high-quality basketball left in him. He tallied 30 points on 11-for-20 shooting on Tuesday in a close loss to the 76ers and he’s averaged 22.3 points, 7.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game since the Spurs resumed play last Friday. While those averaged mostly coincide with what he did this season, it also represents a decent boost in assists. But more importantly, it solidifies that DeRozan should still receive a serious look as a lead star. And he’ll probably get interest from a number of teams.
The Known Commodities
Marcus Morris Sr., Los Angeles Clippers – UFA
While Morris Sr. is a known commodity, teams could use additional poor performances against him in negotiations. He’ll probably still have the option to sign for a veterans minimum or mid-level exception with a contender like the Clippers or Lakers. But if he’s eyeing another payday that pays him an annual salary equal to what he made in 2019-20, it would behoove him to make his mark on the stat book.
Making A Case
Trey Burke, Dallas Mavericks – UFA
Burke hasn’t been overly consistent since NBA play resumed last week. But he did have a huge breakout game against the Rockets, scoring 31 points on 8-for-10 for three-pointers in only 30 minutes, while also dishing six assists.
Yes, Burke is averaging just 5.5 points in 18 minutes in the two games since, but the fact that he scored 31 in an NBA game will be enough to get looks as an off-the-bench scorer. And it’s a narrative that can be supported by his past work, too. Remember, Burke is still just 27-years-old and he has a 42-point career-high. He’s also exploded for 30 four times and eclipsed the 20-point mark on 38 occasions in his 389 career games. So even if it’s just a reminder, it’s good to know that Burke can still get it done offensively – and teams are always looking for ways to manufacture offense.
Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz – UFA
Clarkson’s shot only 40 percent from the field since play resumed last Thursday, with an even worse 20 percent from three-point range. Still, scorers are as valuable as ever. It’s what made J.R. Smith so much money in this league, as well as Lou Williams and countless others – and rightfully so. Ultimately, it’s about putting the ball in the hoop. And with that being said, a franchise is going to pay Clarkson and they’ll end up paying more than they would have as of March.
Reggie Jackson, Los Angeles Clippers – UFA
Jackson has less to prove than most guys in this part of this list – but given his injury history, he does have to make a statement.
On the whole, Jackson has looked good – but not necessarily great. He averaged 12.5 points, seven rebounds and two assists in his first two contests, but he regressed in the Clippers’ most recent game against the Suns. But on a positive note, Jackson received only 23 minutes on Tuesday versus Phoenix and his 15 points on 5-for-9 shooting, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals accumulated in just 20 minutes.
If Jackson continues to be a contributor to the contending Clippers, someone will overspend on him. After all, good point guards are few and far between.
Harry Giles III, Sacramento Kings – UFA
Giles III only played four minutes in the Kings’ first game back against the Spurs and he didn’t fare much better over 12:55 versus the Mavericks on Tuesday. But when you’re a fringe player that had injury concerns throughout your young career, any positive outings are good – especially those that come in a contract year. Giles tallied 23 points and eight rebounds in only 20 minutes against the Orlando Magic – a significant jump from his 7.2 points and 4.2 rebounds averages this season. And that’s probably enough to generate interest amongst a number of teams.
The Kings curiously declined Giles’ fourth-year option, making him an unrestricted free agent as of the end of this season. That’s an interesting decision because the option was relatively cheap given that he was only the No. 20 overall pick (2017). Further confusing matters is the idea that by passing on the fourth-year option, they also lost matching rights – so Giles won’t even be restricted.
To make matters worse, the Kings can’t even bid more than $3.9 million to retain his services. So the Kings ultimately wasted a first-round draft pick on Giles for a grand total of 14.5 minutes per game across 99 games – and he’ll walk before they even know what they had in him.
But this all works out nicely for Giles, who will absolutely get an opportunity elsewhere – and he’ll be paid more than he would have received in Sacramento for it. How good is still an unknown, but he’s shown enough for a team to take a flyer on considering his size, skill set and versatility. He was the No. 1 overall recruit coming out of high school according to ESPN just four short years ago.
Free agency is going to be different than ever before and, up until very recently, that was assumed to be a bad thing. But with some of the above players changing the narratives around them, it could become even more exciting than it’s been in the recent past. Add in the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Davis Bertans, Christian Wood – and we’re looking at an under-appreciated free-agent class.
NBA Daily: Breaking Down The Bubble’s Race For 8th
Ben Nadeau analyzes the race for the No. 8 and 9 spots in the Western Conference – who will make the cut?
As the NBA inched toward its inevitable rebirth, the instant drama surrounding the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed became a conversation wildfire.
Was the league rolling out the red carpet in hopes of a Zion Williamson-LeBron James showdown in the first round? Could the healthier Portland Trail Blazers make another historic run toward history? De’Aaron Fox, the Sacramento franchise cornerstone, took umbrage over a lack of Kings-related faith, while the Memphis Grizzlies had more than enough ground to protect their standing in the current hierarchy.
Three or so games in to our bubbled adventure, everything has changed – and fast.
The Pelicans, still worrisome over Williamson’s health and conditioning, played him about 15 minutes in each of their first two contests – coincidently, New Orleans went 0-2. With their backs against the wall and slowly losing traction in a muddied race, the Pelicans played the future superstar for 25 minutes, where he racked up 23 points, seven rebounds and used a personal 6-0 run to clinch a much-needed win. Not only did the victory signify an important swing in momentum for the veteran-laden squad, but it was another crushing defeat for Grizzlies, who fell to 0-3 and further loosened their once-gridlocked hold on the final playoff seed.
Long perceived to be a five-team fight for the right to face Memphis in the play-in game(s), the Grizzlies’ early struggles have now nearly opened both spots up. All the more interesting, the San Antonio Spurs have begun 2-1, alongside the Phoenix Suns’ 2-0 effort. Although invited without much media afterthought, both the Spurs and Suns – who boast two of the most reliable constants of the bunch, Gregg Popovich and Devin Booker, respectively – are within the four-game window needed to force a play-in too.
So then: Thanks to the Grizzlies’ scuffles, who’ll be the two franchises to reach that play-in showdown?
Let’s start with the Pelicans, a team that’ll be better the more Williamson is allowed on the floor, obviously. While that variable remains up in the air, New Orleans’ remaining schedule is not. They’ll finish with the Kings twice, plus winnable matchups against the Spurs, Wizards and Magic. Although that opening day loss versus Utah stings, there’s no shame in falling to the Clippers, so the opportunity is certainly still there for the Pelicans to reach Nos. 8 or 9 in the coming days.
The Spurs, following a hard-fought effort against Philadelphia on Monday, unfortunately, have a much harder path forward: Denver, Utah, New Orleans, Houston and Utah. No Magic, no Nets, no Kings, even. Just New Orleans and three teams currently fighting for ‘home court’ advantage in the first round. Of course, betting against Gregg Popovich is beyond stupid and that is a lesson some select few must re-learn every spring – but they still seem like the least likely of six to leapfrog into a spot.
Likewise, it isn’t much better for Phoenix. They’ll conclude with the Clippers, Indiana Pacers and T.J. Warren’s supernova act, Miami HEAT, Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks. Thankfully, Mikal Bridges’ efforts in Orlando and Ricky Rubio’s trusty playmaking have served as great foils for Deandre Ayton and the aforementioned Booker. Overall, their offensive rating just cracks the top half (15th, 110.4) and their defense remains in the lower half – but stars win games and Booker fits the bill.
Even the Kings, losers to the Spurs and Magic to open their bubble campaign, get the Pelicans twice but also a downright bad Brooklyn Nets squad and a potentially-resting Los Angeles Lakers team in four of their final five games – so don’t count them out either. With their destiny firmly in hand, expect the Kings to make a run of their own. Fox put up 39 points against San Antonio before tallying just 13 versus Orlando – and, in the latter, Sacramento’s only scorer above 15 went to Harry Giles’ 23. Given the context and a very winnable schedule, the next week or so bodes well for the Kings’ hopes.
As for Portland, the squad with the most bankable 1-2 punch of the collection, have an impossibly-tough Rockets-Nuggets-Clippers-76ers run-in before ending with the Mavericks and Nets. Worse, that stretch of difficult opposition will come fast and furious – a classic three games in four days slog. But above all, their defense leaves too much to be desired, even with the return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. Before the shutdown, Portland’s defense was only better than the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards at 113.6 in the ratings department.
In the two games back, well, it’s actually been even worse and their putrid 132.0 defensive rating is a whopping 7 points behind the Kings’ 29th-rated unit. It’s early and the sample size is certainly small – but with only six games left, they’ll need to figure it out in the against some of the league’s best. Still, Damian Lillard is a big-moment killer – he did, after all, break up the Thunder core on his own last April – and he’s capable of hot streaks that few others are.
Lillard and Nurkic put up 30 points apiece against Boston – plus 17 from CJ McCollum and 21 notched by Gary Trent Jr. – and totaled 124 as a team… yet it still wasn’t enough. The heroics of Portland’s stars will be relentless, but if they can’t stop the opposition – they’ll come up short.
In the end, even guessing at Nos. 8 and 9 is a fool’s errand. The Bubble has provided shock after shock already – and the added hurdle of rested players for locked-in seeds are soon to come – but six teams will be whittled down to two before long. Despite the slow start, Memphis remains in the driver’s seat – if they can pick up a win on Wednesday versus a seriously-slumping Jazz side, it’ll go a long way toward clinching their place.
And they’d better hope so: If they don’t, they’ll need to hope for some load management with the Thunder, Raptors, Celtics and Bucks to end the mini-campaign. It’s one of the tougher schedules left in the Western Conference, but their cushion, no matter how rapidly it is shrinking, is still reason to believe they’ll limp into the do-or-die scenario.
As for the second spot, it still feels like the Pelicans’ to lose. Between Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick, Brandon Ingram and, duh, Williamson, there’s too much firepower here to completely struggle through an easier-than-most schedule.
But, sure, bet against Gregg Popovich, Damian Lillard, De’Aaron Fox and Devin Booker at your own risk – conventional wisdom suggests that at least one of them will crash the party, no matter how unlikely it seems today.
NBA Daily: The Bubble’s Biggest Dark Horses
With the NBA’s restart underway and the postseason around the corner, Shane Rhodes looks at a few teams that could make some noise and prove the league’s biggest dark horse title contenders.
It’s official: basketball is back.
It may have taken 142 days, but the NBA has returned and seeding games are underway in Orlando. Better yet, and while the heightened intensity of these first few games may make it seem like we’re already there, the postseason is just around the corner.
But what are the playoffs going to look like, exactly? Aside from the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, the field is wide open — even teams that struggled during the regular season have a real chance to make some noise.
In fact, the lead up to the postseason has afforded those teams a clean slate, a fresh start and the opportunity to tweak with the formula that failed them in the regular season.
Of course, some rosters are simply too depleted to make any noise. But others, if they can pivot and put their best foot forward, have the chance to emerge as dark horse title threats.
So, which teams have the best chance to come out of nowhere, surprise everyone and, just maybe, punch their ticket to the NBA Finals?
The regular season wasn’t exactly kind to the 76ers. And, staring down a 10-24 road record pre-restart, the move to Orlando may only prove worse for them.
But their talent is undeniable, and there’s too much of it on the roster to just cast the team aside.
Despite that abysmal record, the 76ers proved they could dominate with their collective head in the game — their 29-2 record at home was the best in the NBA. They sport a stingy defense and two of the NBA’s best on that end with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Meanwhile, their size — Raul Neto and Zhaire Smith are the only two on the roster shorter than 6-foot-5 — should give them an advantage in almost any situation.
It may even make them the best potential matchup for the top-dog in the Eastern Conference, the Bucks.
Yes, they are a bit of a clunky fit on offense. But Embiid and Simmons represent two of the brightest young stars — they can make it work, adjusting as needed on a series-to-series basis. Paired with Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson, among others, they shouldn’t lack for help, either.
An early-season favorite to at least make the Eastern Conference Finals, Philadelphia no doubt disappointed this season — for some reason, it just didn’t click for them. It may never.
But on paper, the 76ers have enough talent to compete with anyone. If they can fit the pieces together and hit their stride in the first round, don’t be surprised if they go on a lengthy postseason run.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Currently the sixth seed out West, can the Thunder even be considered a dark horse?
But since they never should have been there in the first place – most definitely.
With Paul George gone to Los Angeles and Russell Westbrook to Houston last summer, nobody expected Oklahoma City to be relevant in 2020. With an aging star in Chris Paul — who, at the time, looked like he wanted nothing to do with the team — and a bunch of players that looked more like trade bait than contributors, they looked dead in the water and stocked up on draft picks.
And yet, here they are, giant slayers in position to snag a top-four seed.
Paul, in a bounce-back year, has elevated the entire roster. Steven Adams and Danilo Gallinari, quality veterans in their own right, have been strong, uber-efficient contributors. Dennis Schroder has emerged as one of the league’s best sixth-men, while Sam Presti’s diamond-in-the-rough, Luguentz Dort, has grown from a raw defensive specialist into a surprise starter and arguably their best defender.
And, most importantly, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander seems to have leaped toward stardom. The Canadian guard was a stud as a sophomore, averaging 19.3 points, six rebounds and 3.3 assists on strong shooting splits.
They don’t have a legit star to carry them — Paul, despite the resurgence, isn’t the player he once was and Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t quite there yet. But come the postseason, it may not matter. The Thunder are one of the most balanced teams in the NBA; they spread it out on offense — Gallinari, Gilgeous-Alexander, Paul and Schroder averaged at least 17 points for the season — and are a top 10 defensive unit returning one of the league’s best on that end in Andre Roberson.
It’ll be ugly, for sure, but the Thunder don’t care. They’ll scratch and claw their way to wins as they have the whole season. They may not make the Finals, but they are a lock to make life difficult for some other team(s) looking to bring home the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Portland Trail Blazers
Portland has yet to punch their ticket to the big dance, and they have a long road ahead of them before they can. But should they sneak in, they may prove the most dangerous team in the postseason.
Just a season ago, the Trail Blazers were a top-four seed and, despite the loss of Jusuf Nurkic, a Western Conference Finals participant. Unfortunately, it all seemed to come crashing down in the regular season. Already at a disadvantage without Nurkic at the center spot, the team lost Zach Collins to a major shoulder injury just three games into the season and, later, Rodney Hood to a torn left Achilles.
Had the season gone on as scheduled, no one would have blamed the Trail Blazers for throwing in the towel. An ugly 29-37 before the shutdown, there just wasn’t much the team could do to bolster their postseason odds.
But now they’ve been gifted a second chance. The stoppage in play allowed every team to rest and recuperate, yes, but arguably no team benefited more from that time than Portland — and teams are starting to take notice.
The threat presented by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum is obvious. But with the roster back near 100 percent health, the team may pose a legitimate threat to the Western Conference crown. Collins’ presence on defense was sorely missed, to say the least. Nurkic, meanwhile, has played as if he hadn’t missed the last year and change. In two bubble games, the Bosnian Beast has averaged 24 points, nine rebounds, five assists, two steals and 3.5 blocks.
Both players should significantly alleviate the burden placed on Lillard’s shoulders as well, further enabling him to crush opposing defenses.
At the moment, the Trail Blazers are the Western Conference’s ninth seed, just two games back of the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth spot. If they remain within four games, Portland could earn themselves a play-in and potentially jump the Grizzlies (or whomever the eighth seed might be) and steal the last spot in the postseason.
And if they force their way in? The NBA better watch out.