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Head-to-Head: Third Best in the East

Basketball Insider’s Nate Duncan and Tommy Beer go head-to-head in a debate over who is the third best team in the Eastern Conference.

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Aside from the Miami HEAT and Indiana Pacers, no Eastern Conference teams have seen this season unfold according to plan.  As a result, those two teams are head and shoulders above the rest of the pack, while the third best team in the East is currently a mere two games over .500.   Which of these teams will emerge as the third seed in the conference, and can any Eastern team even remotely challenge the HEAT or Pacers in the conference semifinals?  Basketball Insiders’ Tommy Beer and Nate Duncan debate.

Duncan: Shockingly for an Eastern Conference in which the Bulls, Nets and Knicks were deemed heavyweights before the season, the favorite for the third seed now appears to be the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors currently hold the third seed with a 22-20 record, but record-wise they are in a morass of teams including the Bulls, Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards. However, the Raptors are playing much better ball than anyone else competing for the third seed. DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson are all having career years for the Raptors. Since the Raptors traded away Rudy Gay on December 8, they are 16-9. Their underlying statistics back up that outstanding record as well; Toronto is outscoring opponents by 6.7 points per 100 possessions since the trade. In fact, that mark ranks fifth in the entire league over that time frame, shocking for a team that was deemed tankworthy earlier in the season. By contrast, the Nets and Hawks rank ninth and 14th since December 8, while the Bulls are 17th.  Although I hesitate to put all my eggs in the statistical basket, from that standpoint the Raptors look like the clear favorites.

Beer: Coming into the 2013-14 season, the expectations for the Brooklyn Nets were sky high. Brooklyn enjoyed arguably the most active and successful offseason of any team in the league – mortgaging their future to add Hall-of-Famers in Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, while also fortifying the bench with top-tier role players such as Andrei Kirilenko, Alan Anderson and Jason Terry. The total cost to owner Mikhail Prokhorov was astronomical. The Nets’ luxury tax bill alone is higher than the GDP of many industrialized nations. And the man tasked with coaching this juggernaut was the recently retired Jason Kidd.

In the build up to the regular season, the Nets were viewed by many as legit contenders for the Miami HEAT’s crown. However, the Nets looked like anything but championship contenders over the season’s first two months. On New Year’s Eve, the Nets were demolished by the Spurs in San Antonio (their sixth loss in seven games), dropping Brooklyn’s record to putrid 10-21, an embarrassing 11 games under .500. Kidd had already (unceremoniously) fired his lead assistant in Lawrence Frank, and the team’s best big man, center Brook Lopez, had his season end prematurely due to a broken foot. It appeared there would be no way to avoid a nightmare season.

Yet, somehow, the Nets seemed to flip the switch in the New Year. Brooklyn reeled off five straight wins to start 2014, and is now 8-1 in the New Year. Brooklyn has received improved play across the board. Joe Johnson is averaging 19 points per game in January. Deron Williams has returned from a debilitating ankle injury, but told Coach Kidd he’d prefer to come off the bench to not disrupt the chemistry of a successful starting lineup featuring Johnson, Pierce, Garnett, Anderson and Shaun Livingston.

Reserves Andray Blatche and Kirilenko have provided a major spark off the bench as well. In fact, the Nets are now 9-1 in the 10 games Kirilenko has played at least 13 minutes this season. Brooklyn is 9-21 in the games he’s missed or played fewer than 14 minutes.

After a nightmarish start to the season, things have been downright dreamy in Brooklyn since the calendar flipped to 2014.

Duncan: Tommy, you seem to know a lot about the Nets.  Did you somehow gain access to Lawrence Frank’s daily reports?  I agree with you that the Nets have looked great since the new year.  In that time frame, they are scoring 108 points/100 and allowing only 101.5/100.  In addition to better health, the key has been the return to form of Kevin Garnett.  He was supposed to be a panacea for their defense, but Nets were oddly terrible defensively with him on the floor early in the year.  He also was one of the worst offensive players in the game early on.  Since then, he has really come on, and since January 1 the Nets allow only 88.7 points/100 when Garnett is in the game.

Deron Williams recently made his latest return from his myriad ankle injuries as well.  If he can recapture the form he flashed at the end of last season and Garnett can keep it up (neither of which is guaranteed), the Nets could very easily play better than the Raptors the rest of the way.  And the Nets have more players with an established track record than the Raptors, so one could argue that the Nets are more likely to sustain their excellent recent play.

On the other hand, you could argue that the Nets have many older players with worse injury histories than the Raptors’ much younger starting five. The Raptors have also been an outstanding third in defense since the Gay trade, and I think we can expect a little regression to the mean because Toronto does not have any players with outstanding defensive track records on their roster.

That said, the Raptors’ point differential on the season is 5.5 points/100 better than the Nets.  All of those desultory blowouts early on really hurt the Nets in that metric.  But even if you want to make the (reasonable) argument that the Nets aren’t that team anymore, the Raptors are still 2.5 points/100 better than the Nets even since the Gay trade.  They have even been a point better since the Nets’ “switch-flipping” on January 1. Combine that with Toronto’s 2.5 game lead in the standings, and I think they are the clear favorites even if you buy that the Nets may perform a little better over the rest of the year.

Beer: The Nets had plenty of talent on their roster last season, and were able to win 49 games and capture the fourth seed in the East. However, they were knocked out of the playoffs by an under-manned Bulls team missing many of their top players. In that bitterly disappointing first-round defeat, an issue that had been a major problem for Brooklyn all season reared its head in a major way – lack of leadership, aggressiveness and intensity. The hope was that the the blockbuster trade that resulted in Brooklyn obtaining Garnett, Pierce and Terry would be truly transformational. As much as future Hall-of-Famers KG and Pierce would help the Nets on the floor, their biggest and most important impact was supposed to come in the locker room. There are very few individuals who can nearly single-handedly change the culture of a franchise immediately upon his arrival. It just so happens that KG is one of those players.

However, early on in the year, KG was not only terrible defensively early on (as you noted above), he was also remarkably inefficient and ineffective on the offensive end as well. But the Nets seemed to have flipped the switch since the start of the New Year. In addition, it seems that Coach Kidd has finally found his bearings and is comfortably settling into his new position.

So are we in agreement that these are the only two real possibilities for the three seed (barring massive injuries, of course) or is there anyone else you feel could be a legitimate contender for that spot?

Duncan: It sure doesn’t look like anyone else could contend.  The Raptors and Nets are really the only Eastern teams playing above .500 quality ball at this point.  The Hawks and Bulls have almost even point differentials on the year, but both of them are likely to play worse over the course of the year considering the Al Horford injury and the Luol Deng trade.  Moreover, those two teams have had two of the easiest schedules in the league and those toughen to about league-average over the rest of the year.  Meanwhile, the Raptors and Nets have had two of the harder schedules in the league, and they have the two easiest schedules the rest of the way.

So, it looks like the seedings would favor that it will be Pacers and HEAT versus Nets and Raptors in the second round in some permutation.  Do you see any way that the Nets and Raptors will actually challenge those two teams or could even win the series?

Beer: Honestly, I don’t see any way either the Raps or Nets put up much of a fight against the HEAT or Pacers. Miami and Indiana have been so clearly head-and-shoulders above the rest of the conference this year, I’d be shocked if either team was even take to a Game 6 before their seemingly inevitable showdown in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Duncan: I could see either of these teams taking the Pacers to six games, if only because the Pacers’ offense could go cold and lead to a very low-scoring series.  But ultimately I don’t see the Pacers losing to either squad.

Although it’s unlikely, I do think it’s possible that either the Nets or Raptors could give the HEAT a series and maybe even win, if only because there is a chance that Miami may not be the team we remember from the last two postseasons by the time these playoffs roll around.  Zach Lowe did a great job detailing why he thinks Miami may be in a bit more trouble defensively this year than past editions.  To that, I would add that LeBron James does not quite look like the all-encompassing force of nature he has been in past years on defense.  Whether that is him starting to slow down a little bit at age 29 (players usually peak from a pure athleticism standpoint at 23-25) or simply taking it easier in the regular season remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Dwyane Wade has now missed the last four games while defensive stalwarts Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem are also getting up there in age.  If Wade is not himself again in the playoffs, and the rest of the roster suffers incremental decline from being a year older, they could be vulnerable.

As I mentioned, Toronto has been much better than Miami statistically since the Gay trade. And Brooklyn matches up very well with the HEAT with their new smaller lineup and great size on the wings.  While it is still very difficult to see either team really challenging the HEAT, there are enough statistical indicators there that an upset would not be completely out of left field.

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NBA PM: The Bright Future Watch – Eastern Conference

Matt John looks at the Eastern Conference’s brightest futures.

Matt John

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“They’ve got a bright future!” Has there ever been a more vague statement in the NBA? Not to mention, something pretty cliche on top of it? The future could mean anything because, well, it depends on what is meant by the ominous ‘future’. Like next year’s future or the far-future five-to-seven years from now?

These days, more NBA teams than not have a bright future. whether it’s immediate or distant, because teams are generally run better now. Teams aren’t spending money just for the sake of spending money like they did five years ago. The best franchises are hiring personnel that actually might be the first steps towards changing their fortunes for the better. And, perhaps best of all, they’re actually treating patience like a virtue.

Take Detroit, for example. The Pistons have predictably been one of the worst teams in the league this season and, to add insult to injury, they’re paying Blake Griffin over $60 million to not play for them. Yet, the newly added Jerami Grant has been stupendous and they’re going to get a high lottery pick in a loaded draft. No one likes to be among the worst of the worst, but they have to feel good about themselves long-term.

The same goes for New York. The Knicks have been mocked for years over incompetent management, but they’re living proof that all they needed was the right guy to flip the switch. Tom Thibodeau changed everything. They now have an elite defense. Julius Randle earned his all-star nod. RJ Barrett looks like a potential franchise player. This is the longest they’ve stayed in the playoff race since 2013. Making the postseason remains in question, but it won’t matter if they reach it or not.

Both of them have promising futures, but we may not see them reach their ceilings for some time. Today, we’re taking a look at the Eastern Conference and teams that project to make an extended run if they play their cards right.

The Time Is Now

Brooklyn Nets

Fun fact about Brooklyn: James Harden or not, they were contenders already. They already had a fair shot at the title with the core they had surrounding two of the league’s best scorers of their generation. Then they added a third. One could have called it overkill in the beginning but, in light of Kevin Durant’s injuries this season, the trade prevented what could have been a major turn for the worse. Even if Durant managed to stay on the court, it’s still a no-brainer to acquire Harden, duh.

Now the Nets are at the top of the conference and they’re only now starting to get back to full health. They brought in some stellar reinforcements to round out the edges with Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge. Maybe their defense won’t be good enough to be considered the overall favorites right now, but their offense should be legendary enough to compensate.

Brooklyn’s loaded for this season and beyond. Unless their three-headed monster suddenly disbands, it’s going to be like this for the next few years.

Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks should feel pretty good about their immediate future. They have the reigning two-time MVP locked in for the next half-decade when many perceived that was not going to be the case last fall. They re-upped Jrue Holiday for the rest of his prime. Khris Middleton’s still as good as ever. They also have no assets left thanks to the Holiday trade, so this is it.

Now that their final form is in plain view, it’s time to see if the Bucks can get over their playoff demons once and for all. Somehow, Giannis Antetokounmpo is not enough. Holiday’s better than any playmaking guard they had last year on both sides of the floor. Whether or not he and Middleton, among others, can help rise past their spotty postseason efforts remains to be seen.

The Window’s Opening

Philadelphia 76ers

Philadelphia has gained national attention ever since they started cashing in on The Process in 2017 – but combining last season’s disastrous results and this season of redemption, the 76ers now have a much clearer vision of utilizing Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Turns out, it’s pretty simple. They needed shooting – and having it now has done a complete 180.

As Embiid and Simmons continue to progress, floor spacing that won’t compromise the defense should be the point of emphasis from here on out. Putting Tobias Harris back at his natural position as a power forward, while inserting Seth Curry and Danny Green as complementary guards, does just that. If the Sixers want The Process to reach its maximum potential, the team they have right now is the template for how to get there.

If the star pairing is given the necessary room to operate, Philly should be right there with the best of them, year in and year out.

Charlotte Hornets

Simply put, this was their most exciting year as a franchise since Buzz City actually got a professional basketball team. Then, in what feels like one swift motion, they lose their two best players for an extended period, which might very well kill their playoff chances.

That’s tough cheese to swallow, but Charlotte’s put the league on notice. They are young. They are fun. They’re only going to get better. This was just Year One for LaMelo Ball, the new face of the franchise. Gordon Hayward should have a fair amount of good basketball left in him, provided he stays on the court. Terry Rozier, Miles Bridges, PJ Washington, Malik Monk and Devonte’ Graham have all made strides as players too. There’s reason to believe that this team has only scratched the surface of its potential.

No matter what happens this season, the Hornets are not going to be a team to take lightly anymore.

Atlanta Hawks

Coming into the season, Atlanta had one of the deepest collections of talent in the league. Somehow though, no one was quite sure what to expect. Trae Young and John Collins were a nice, young pair, but, in spite of De’Andre Hunter’s jump this year, the results were mixed. That was until Nate McMillan took over.

The Hawks soon rattled off an eight-game winning streak, then one of four games not too long after that. With players coming back from injury, the pieces started to fit, showing themselves to be a functional operation.

They have young talent coming into their own now and they have veterans who have been there before. As long as they make it their goal to keep Collins, the Hawks could potentially be a powerhouse as soon as next year.

Don’t Count ‘Em Out

Boston Celtics

This season’s been a mess for Boston. Kemba Walker hasn’t been able to play on back-to-backs. Jayson Tatum has struggled on those very same games. No team has missed more games than Boston has thanks to COVID-19. For a team that has come so close to getting over the Eastern Conference Finals hump, this was about as disastrous of a season as Boston could have endured.

At the same time, they still have the best combination of two-way wings in the league with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Seasons like these help young stars grow when they’re hitting their primes. Plus, the biggest positive is that Robert Williams III has asserted himself as their center of the future.

They definitely have some roster issues to fix when the season’s over, but Boston should be in for a major rebound next season.

Miami HEAT

Miami’s skeptics screamed from the hilltops that the finals run last season was a fluke. Miami set out to prove them wrong and… they haven’t really done that. The HEAT have been erratic, to say the least. They’ve had extended winning streaks, all evened out by extended losing streaks. Now, they’re just fighting to return to the playoffs.

Even so, the winning streaks they’ve had demonstrates that they’re capable of consistently winning basketball. They still have pretty much everyone from last year’s roster, only with more reinforcements with Victor Oladipo, Trevor Ariza and Nemanja Bjelica. If by chance the HEAT don’t succeed, they honestly don’t have much to fret about.

They lost their Plan A when Giannis Antetokounmpo re-signed in Milwaukee, but they’re still going to be heavy players in free agency. Knowing Pat Riley, this season will at worst will only be seen as a momentary setback.

Regardless of where your favorite franchise lands in the current conference hierarchy, there’s plenty of things to like across the board. From up-and-coming rookies to promising draft futures, the Eastern Conference is stronger than ever. While the Nets, Bucks and 76ers appear to be the biggest threat’s to the Lakers’ immediate throne, even the bottom feeders are on their way up in today’s modern NBA landscape.

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NBA Daily: A Bright Future is Building in Oklahoma City

Tristan Tucker takes an in-depth look at what makes the Oklahoma City Thunder click and which players can emerge as future stars of the league.

Tristan Tucker

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34 draft picks from 2021-27.

A staggering treasure chest of assets, something that means nothing if the team that owns those assets can’t draft well.

Thankfully for fans of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the franchise has already shown that it can build a competitive and fun roster no matter the circumstances.

There’s no sugarcoating it, the Thunder is truly awful this season. The team boasts a truly atrocious 104.7 offensive rating, good for 30th in the league while pushing out a less-than-stellar 112.8 defensive rating, good for 22nd in the league. The team is dead last in SRS, a stat that factors point differential and strength of schedule while owning a league-worst -8.1 net rating.

But this team is so much fun to watch. So much so that it’s easy to neglect its horrible rankings and record.

The Young Stars

The team already boasts one of the game’s best young stars in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Gilgeous-Alexander is enjoying career-best numbers of 23.7 points and 5.9 assists per game while shooting 50.8 percent from the floor and 41.8 percent from beyond the arc. “SGA” is out indefinitely, but the team can rest assured in the development it’s seeing from its other young pieces.

Look no further than the team’s 2020 draft class composed of Aleksej Pokusevski and Theo Maledon, two players already making an impact. Entering the season, neither player looked to be significant contributors coming from overseas play and needing time to develop. In fact, “Poku” is the youngest player in the NBA, while Maledon is the sixth-youngest.

Maledon has 30 starts under his belt already at the age of 19, averaging 9.8 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. Maledon’s shooting splits don’t jump off the page but his instincts do. The point guard isn’t the type of player to give up on a play and it’s easy to see the offensive instincts carry over from his time with ASVEL in France.

Meanwhile, Pokusevski is on fire as of late. Since March 11, “Poku” is a full-time starter, averaging 31.4 minutes, 13 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. The Serbian power forward only turned 19 in December and it’s already clear to see his potential is nearly limitless.

Fan-favorite “Poku” has shooting potential, connecting at a 35.9 percent rate from deep on over six attempts per game. He can make plays, rebound, gather blocks and score at all three levels. He isn’t a marksman, he’s far from it at this stage of his career, but there’s no denying the finesse he puts on every shot. Pick-and-rolls featuring Pokusevski and Maledon is something Thunder fans have to look forward to.

The Thunder’s young talent doesn’t end there, the team is already proving it can find gems on a whim.

Two-Way Contract Development

Moses Brown played out last season as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers on a two-way contract and was mostly an afterthought. Brown spent most of his rookie season in the G-League before getting an opportunity with the Thunder in training camp, an opportunity he used to pick up another two-way contract opportunity and then a multi-year deal after stellar play.

In a game against the Boston Celtics on March 27, it was clear to see Brown had established himself as a staple of the Thunder’s young corps. In that game, Brown picked up 21 points and 23 rebounds, both of which are career highs. Shortly after, the Thunder converted Brown to a standard deal.

Since March 14, Brown has 12 starts under his belt in 14 games, averaging 11.5 points and 11.3 rebounds per game.

Oklahoma City has 10 players on its roster that have three or fewer years of experience, not including Pokusevski, Brown, Maledon or Gilgeous-Alexander.

Shortly after converting Brown, the team moved to sign Jaylen Hoard, who was on a two-way contract opposite of Brown in Portland last year. Like Brown, Hoard spent training camp in 2020 with the Thunder but was ultimately cut, unlike Brown. However, if early signs are any indication, Hoard already looks like another keeper.

In just three games, Hoard is averaging 11.7 points per game while limiting his fouls and playing with his head down.

The other two-way contract slot is held by Josh Hall out of Moravian Prep, a young player that is very raw but has limitless upside. Don’t hold his numbers against him, he has the athleticism to make fans regret that. Watching Hall is always a thrill because there’s always a risk of an explosive play to come. It’s clear to see that the end-of-roster development is just as skilled as the rest of the roster.

The others

Luguentz Dort and Darius Bazley became household names for NBA fans in the Orlando bubble last season and have continued their strong play into this season. Dort’s been a full-time starter this season while averaging 12.6 points per game. His shooting is pitiful but he’s a hard worker and he’s made strides as both a playmaker and a scorer. Bazley is also a full-time starter with poor shooting numbers but he’s close to being a nightly double-double. While these two haven’t jumped off the page this year, they’ve both already proven that they can contribute to winning basketball, as seen last season.

Isaiah Roby is another interesting case, he’s a big player that can play the three through the five on a dime. Roby was traded to the Thunder from the Dallas Mavericks for pennies on the dollar — and he’s making Oklahoma City thankful for their doing so. Roby’s averaging 8.9 points on very efficient shooting.

As if the OKC frontcourt wasn’t loaded enough, the team went out and acquired Tony Bradley from the Philadelphia 76ers in a trade that shipped George Hill away. The move looked great at the time and looks even better now, as he’s making the case to be considered a long-term piece. 

Bradley is still just 23-years-old and looked like a suitable replacement for Joel Embiid on the 76ers when the MVP candidate went down. The center’s best game came in a win over the Golden State Warriors in which he recorded 18 points and 11 boards.

If that wasn’t enough the team also has Svi Mykhailiuk, Ty Jerome and Kenrich Williams, who have all proven their worth in one way or another. Mykhailiuk and Jerome have the potential to be some of the best shooters in the league while “Kenny Hustle” is exactly that, the ultimate glue guy.

Overseas development

One of the most underrated traits a developing team can have is the ability to negotiate with overseas players and leagues and pick up professional stars. The Thunder is quickly showing its fans that it is more than capable of doing so.

Firstly, the team drafted Vit Krejci in the second round of the 2020 draft. Krejci didn’t come over this season but has the potential to be a good role player for the Thunder if he’s ever brought over. He also got experience playing in the NBA G League earlier this year.

Then, the team recently signed Gabriel Deck, who isn’t super young but is a winning player. Literal hours before the move went down, Deck scored 19 points to lift Real Madrid to the Euroleague playoffs.

The team is also reportedly bringing over Vasilije Micic next season, a star in Euroleague averaging 16.4 points and 5 assists per game in those games. Keep in mind that it’s much more difficult to notch assists overseas. Micic isn’t young either, but he’ll bring a lot of professional experience both on the court and in the locker room to aid a young Thunder team.

While Oklahoma City is constantly touted for its future draft picks, its current roster isn’t something to look over either. Combine that with the fact that, despite his massive deal, the team might be able to actually get something of value for Al Horford and has a roster spot to use once Justin Robinson’s current 10-day deal runs up.

In the NBA not many things are certain, but the Thunder’s bright future and strategic front office surely are.

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NBA Daily: Executive of the Year Watch

Front offices around the league have had their hands full trying to make the right moves in order to steer their organizations towards a championship. With one month of regular season basketball remaining, Basketball Insiders examines the intense race for the Executive of the Year Award.

Chad Smith

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There are three main areas where NBA executives face extreme pressure and scrutiny. Free agency, the draft and the trade deadline are all different avenues for teams to improve as they pursue the ultimate goal of a championship. Under ordinary circumstances, there are sleepless nights, make-or-break decisions and countless “what if” scenarios that run through their heads. During two seasons amid a pandemic, things somehow get even more hectic.

With a shortened offseason and limited access to players, executives were given the impossible task of drafting the right player, signing the best free agents and making the perfect trade just before the deadline. Some teams have done well while others — like Danny Ainge in Boston — have struck out looking. With the regular season heading towards the finish line, five contenders have separated themselves from the rest of the pack in terms of winning the Executive of the Year Award.

Sean Marks, Brooklyn Nets

Technically the biggest move of Marks’ career came two seasons ago when he signed Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan and traded for Kevin Durant. This set the table for everything else and, while some view it as Brooklyn simply lucking out, Marks still had to put the team in a position to make the deals work. He began collecting key role players like Bruce Brown, Jeff Green, Tyler Johnson and kept Joe Harris with a new contract.

Sean’s next move was to put together a package to acquire James Harden from the Houston Rockets. The deal had been rumored for quite some time but once it became official, Marks had put together arguably the greatest trio of superstars the league has ever seen. The Nets were also able to add Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge via the buyout market to bolster their already impressive roster.

Brooklyn has only had all three of their star players on the court for six games but they have also had the luxury of one or two guys carrying the load while the others get healthy. When you factor in the deals for guys like Nicolas Claxton, Landry Shamet, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Alize Johnson, it is easy to see why Marks is the clear frontrunner to win the award this season.

James Jones, Phoenix Suns

As a player, Jones was always associated with winning teams. Now, the same can be said for his career as an executive. When Jones was able to put the trade together for veteran point guard Chris Paul, he knew exactly what he was doing. The move was successful in three ways. The veteran leadership and talent acquisition is obvious, but it also prevented them from having to overpay Kelly Oubre. The third and probably most important, was proving to Devin Booker that they were serious about winning – and winning now.

With Booker under contact through the 2023-24 season, it removed any potential desire to request a trade in order to play for a winning team. This was becoming more apparent at the end of last season when the Suns went 8-0 in the bubble down in Orlando. The pieces were nearly in place, but Jones still had to work around the edges to make everything stick.

Jones got busy in free agency, signing Jae Crowder, Langston Galloway, Dario Saric and E’Twaun Moore. Crowder provides more playoff experience that their young nucleus can digest. Jones even picked up a talented young player like Torrey Craig for next-to-nothing at the trade deadline. From reclamation projects like Jevon Carter, Cameron Payne and Frank Kaminsky, to the player development of Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton and Cameron Johnson, the stars have aligned for Phoenix, who own the second-best record in the league.

Daryl Morey, Philadelphia 76ers

While the award is seemingly a two-horse race between Marks and Jones, Daryl Morey has quietly revamped the 76ers into serious title contenders. It began with drafting Tyrese Maxey, trading for Seth Curry and signing Dwight Howard. His biggest move was shipping out Al Horford and adding Danny Green. Morey, who won this award in 2017-18, has raised the ceiling on their offense by surrounding Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid with capable shooters.

Embiid has been one of the top candidates for MVP this season, though his most recent injury may hurt his case. When he plays, he is the most dominant player in the league. Though he and Simmons have both missed time this year, Tobias Harris has been able to step in and lead the team. Morey has his three stars under contract for the foreseeable future and Doc Rivers has this team playing exceptional defense.

Morey was able to acquire George Hill at the trade deadline, giving the team another ball-handler and an outstanding three-point threat. He has addressed their weaknesses and essentially turned them into strengths. By tweaking the roster since his first day in Philly, Morey has put his stamp on this team as they battle with Brooklyn for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

Rob Pelinka, Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers have been sliding down the standings as they continue to play without their two superstars. With LeBron James and Anthony Davis still sidelined for weeks to come, the team has had to rely on their bench to fill the void. This is where Pelinka has improved the roster the most from last season’s championship team.

Dennis Schroder, Montrezl Harrell and Marc Gasol have provided the depth and talent needed to make another title run. They upgraded at nearly every position while retaining key pieces like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Markieff Morris.

Signing Andre Drummond after his buyout should provide dividends in the postseason as they face guys like Nikola Jokic and Rudy Gobert. This means Davis can play his more natural position at the four spot. Pelinka’s biggest move was signing Davis to a multi-year extension, keeping the big man in a Lakers jersey through at least the 2024-25 season.

Jon Horst, Milwaukee Bucks

After a brutal exit from the playoffs last season, the Bucks decided to reload their roster. Horst was able to complete a deal to acquire Jrue Holiday from the New Orleans Pelicans. Much like the Paul trade in Phoenix, this move convinced their franchise player to stay. Two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo signed his five-year, $228 million supermax extension to stay in Milwaukee.

The failed trade for Bogdan Bogdanovic did not set this team back one bit. Horst signed a couple of key free agents in Bryn Forbes and Bobby Portis, who have been solid contributors for the Bucks. The signings of Craig and AJ Augustin didn’t pan out but they did use one of them to acquire PJ Tucker in a deal with Houston.

Tucker is a perfect fit with this group, providing them with another outstanding defender that has led the league in corner three-point shooting each of the last two seasons. The Bucks had been one of the worst three-point shooting teams from that spot. Milwaukee should have no problem in tight games come playoff time. A closing lineup of Holiday, Khris Middleton, Tucker, Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez should give opposing offenses nightmares.

Honorable Mention

The popular pick before the season was Travis Schlenk, who assembled quite the roster in Atlanta. The Hawks stumbled out of the gate, as they navigated through injuries and a lack of on-court chemistry. After firing head coach Lloyd Pierce, Nate McMillan has guided this team to a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference.

Other notable names to mention are Tim Connelly of the Denver Nuggets and Dennis Lindsey of the Utah Jazz. Denver lost Jerami Grant in the offseason but the recent trades to acquire Aaron Gordon and JaVale McGee have turned Denver’s season around. While the Jazz didn’t make any significant signings before the season, this cast is one that Lindsey assembled and now is thriving with Mike Conley finally settling into their system. Lindsey should get more credit and praise for the Jazz continuing to own the best record in the league.

Winning this award is special, but the ultimate goal for each one of these individuals is to win a championship. Since 1996, only three executives (Ainge, RC Buford, Bob Myers) have won this award and the NBA Finals in the same season.

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