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NBA Daily: Lee Awaiting Opportunity, Staying Positive With Knicks

Drew Maresca has a chat with Courtney Lee about his situation with the New York Knicks and staying ready for when an opportunity comes his way.

Drew Maresca

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Basketball if a fun sport that’s grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry. It brings people of all ages great joy, employs thousands and allows millions of fans to remove themselves from their daily lives and immerse themselves in the sport of their choice.

But there is a colder side to the sport, one in which ability is overlooked in favor of intangibles. The NBA is, after all, a business. And like any business, office politics play a role. This is a side that we’re all at least marginally familiar with. We’ve all seen players traded or cut because they do not fit the team’s timeline or because they were brought in or drafted by the previous management team.

This is not to infer that there’s anything insidious about the business of basketball, but players are people with families and bills and routines just like the rest of us. Of course, teams have the right to operate as they see fit – after all, we’re talking about individual contracts worth between $385,000 and $37.5 million per year that add up to payrolls exceeding $100 million annually.

But often times, players are reduced to their contracts and cap holds rather than being valued for their contributions on – and off – the court. Players understand the business they’re in, but there’s something that feels wrong about the league’s politics when it supersedes the natural order – when effective players sit in favor of less qualified ones. This is probably most prevalent when a team fast tracks a rebuild.

And for the first time in what feels like forever, this issue is front and center in New York. To the delight of Knicks fans, the team has finally embraced the concept of bottoming out. Tanking is a notion the Knicks have toyed with and ultimately either balked at or botched nearly every season since 2001. They’ve instead chosen to side with short-term fixes over long-term solutions.

With Scott Perry at the helm this season as general manager, the Knicks are making smart, calculated decisions. They are playing their young guys, which allows for them to develop valuable experience that can’t be learned from the bench or in practice. It also has the residual payoff of more losses, which means better odds come the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery.

But losing is tough. It can cause fatigue within a fanbase, a roster and an organization. Dennis Schroder, backup point guard for the Thunder, recently spoke about his experience with the Hawks regarding this very topic with The Oklahoman.

“I wanted to be in a winning organization,” Schroder said. “You just can’t go out there and try to lose.”

Back in New York, no one on the Knicks sympathizes more strongly with what Schroder went through than Courtney Lee. Lee is in an unusual position. He is too good to get on the court for his team because playing him would result in more wins and less playing time for younger guys. But he’s relatively expensive for his age, counting for $12 million against the salary cap this season and he’s owed nearly $13 million for 2019-20.

Lee is 33 years old, but has played some of his best basketball in recent seasons. In fact, he averaged a career high 12 points per game just last season. Furthermore, he is a career 38.9 percent shooter from deep, and he is viewed as a capable defender, a good teammate and someone who doesn’t need touches to impact the game. And yet, he’s received nine consecutive DNP-Coach’s Decisions (including Thursday’s game against the Wizards in London).

Theoretically, the Knicks can point to the neck injury Lee suffered in training camp. There’s an element of plausible deniability there – he was hurt so he could still be hurt.

But Lee upended any such excuse following the 76ers game on January 13.

“I feel good,” Lee told Basketball Insiders. “It happened back in training camp. I feel 100% now.”

Lee understands the business side of the NBA. He has played for seven NBA franchises in his 11 professional seasons.

“It’s not the first one,” Lee said with a chuckle regarding the DNPs. “I’ve been dealing with it, man. At this point you just understand what’s going on – the thought process behind it. The best thing I can do is just stay positive, keep cheering my teammates on and be ready for whatever happens.

“If it’s here getting in the game or getting traded somewhere, just making sure I’m staying in shape and ready to contribute. I just have to live in the moment. Have to tell myself to stay ready, stay prepared, stay in shape because there’s always light at the end of the tunnel – that’s my mindset.”

And fortunately for Lee, he could reach the end of the tunnel sooner than later. The NBA Trade Deadline is less than a month away, and the Knicks would like to double down on their youth movement. Moving Lee, Enes Kanter and/or Tim Hardaway Jr. would help the team open up the requisite cap space to offer a free agent a max deal this coming offseason.

Lee could easily find himself on a team competing for a playoff spot in the very near future. He would almost certainly help the Rockets, the Nuggets and the 76ers, as well as a number of other teams. But in the NBA, it’s never that straight forward. Teams must not only see the benefit of adding the player in question, but also feel compelled to deal with the other team’s front office. And teams know the Knicks want to go shopping this summer, so nothing is guaranteed for Lee.

One thing Lee has going for him that is far from guaranteed is transparency, which he receives from New York’s coaching staff daily.

“Coach Fizdale communicates a lot,” Lee said. “He’ll talk to me before the game (about the potential for DNPs) or he’ll touch base during the game. He does a good job with that.”

Fizdale has been open about his feelings toward Lee and the position he’s in.

“Courtney has been an incredible pro,” Fizdale said in an interview with NorthJersey.com. “I mean, he’s been like a big brother to all of these guys. They love him. They love being around him. He doesn’t do things like, you see times when veterans aren’t playing, they take young guys down in certain ways. Courtney’s been the guy that’s like no, go play. And like he tells me every day ‘Coach you need me, I’m here. I’m ready.’”

Lee has echoed those same sentiments all season long.

He’s just waiting to be given an opportunity to prove it.

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NBA Daily: Uncovering The Next Rodions Kurucs

The Brooklyn Nets struck gold with second-rounder Rodions Kurucs last year. Which under-the-radar prospect could be the next steal of the draft?

Ben Nadeau

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Zion, Zion, Zion.

With a splash of Ja Morant and R.J. Barrett mixed in for good measure, this college basketball season has been all about Duke’s Zion Williamson. The flash card-worthy facts are astonishing — 18 years-old, 6-foot-7, 285 pounds — but his highlight reel moves, both offensively and defensively, have everybody drooling. And although collegiate and professional onlookers alike wait to hear news of a potential Williamson return — or lack thereof — most franchises won’t have a shot at adding the prodigal teenager come draft season. For others, even picking in the lottery isn’t possible and, for a rare few, selecting at all in the first round is entirely off the table — looking at you, for now, Toronto, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Denver and Dallas.

In those cases, they’ll look for uncut gems and low-profile lottery tickets to take a swing on in picks past No. 30 overall. Recent years have brought renewed plaudits to the second round steal, most notably in regards to Isaiah Thomas’ rise to prominence (No. 60), Malcolm Brogdon’s Rookie of the Year campaign (No. 36) and Nikola Jokić’s MVP-worthy efforts in Denver (No. 41). Still, Thomas was a standout at Washington for three seasons, Brogdon the same over four at Virginia, while Jokić — albeit passed upon by every team in the 2014 NBA Draft at least once — averaged 15.4 points and 9.3 rebounds per game and earned Adriatic League MVP before he even joined the Nuggets.

Nowadays, there’s Rodions Kurucs. Everybody wants their own Rodions Kurucs.

For those somehow still under a rock, Kurucs has been a welcomed revelation for the Brooklyn Nets in their surprisingly win-laden campaign thus far. The Latvian-born baller was once-hyped as high as a potential lottery selection back in early 2017 before withdrawing from that season’s draft. But as his on-court time waned with Barcelona, his stock dropped so harshly that he would’ve likely gone undrafted just one year later if not for previous scouting by the Nets. Thankfully, the Nets snagged Kurucs at No. 40 overall and expected him to play an entire season with Brooklyn’s G League affiliate on Long Island.

Kurucs, of course, had other plans.

Through an aggressive, fast-paced style of play, Kurucs has been a massive bright spot for the Nets through their first 60 games. After an injury bug hit Brooklyn hard, Kurucs joined the starting lineup and the Nets instantly rattled off 13 wins in their next 18 contests. All in all, he’s averaged 8.8 points and 3.6 rebounds in 20.9 minutes per game, including a breakout 24-point performance on 5-for-8 from three-point range against the rival Celtics in January. Those unexpected contributions led Kurucs to a well-deserved spot in All-Star Weekend’s Rising Stars competition, where the 21-year-old finished with 10 points, five assists and four rebounds — and, most importantly, looked the part.

As of today, Kurucs has outside odds on reaching the 2018-19 All-Rookie Second Team and the playoff-hopeful Nets look infinitely more athletic and modern game-ready with the forward on the floor. Perhaps in the know about Kurucs from the get-go, the Brooklyn gave him a fully guaranteed four-year contract, with a team option on that final season, shortly after he was drafted. In no uncertain terms, Kurucs is one of the biggest victories of the 2018 class so far. Kurucs was cheap, young and ready to contribute from opening night, a rarity from second-rounders with very little overseas achievements.

Which is all to pose one simple question: Who is the next Rodions Kurucs?

In order to answer that, there are three important pieces of criteria to hit upon before creating such a list of candidates. First and foremost, the player must be a projected second-rounder — if he’s locked into a guaranteed contract, that’s not a draft day steal, that’s a commitment. Building on that, the player must be a relative unknown to some extent. For example, everybody knew Thomas’ name after he averaged 16.8 points and 6.1 assists, led the Huskies to the Pac-10 tournament championship and then the NCAA’s bracket-busting second-round back in 2010-11.

Ultimately, Thomas slipped to No. 60 because of concerns over his height — not because he was under-scouted or off radars altogether.

Finally, the next Kurucs must be a natural fit in today’s NBA landscape. Jokić was a unicorn-in-waiting, whereas Kurucs is a 6-foot-9 uber-athletic floor-runner that can contribute on both sides of the ball. If Kurucs adds a consistent three-point shot to his repertoire, something he’s focused on all season long, he’ll be a lock in Brooklyn’s young rotation for the foreseeable future.

With that in mind, here’s a short-list of contenders that could have a Kurucs-level breakout in 2019-20: Abdoulaye N’Doye, Cholet; Brian Bowen, Sydney Kings; and Darius Bazley, USA.

More popular names like Sekou Doumbouya, Luka Šamanić and Goga Bitadze will continue to garner buzz — particularly following the instant adjustments made by Luka Dončić this season — but all three international prospects have been ranked as a potential first-rounder in the early editions of draft boards, so they don’t qualify for now. Which leaves us with three options — one genuine overseas prospect and two Americans with a couple of unique circumstances.

N’Doye is a 6-foot-6 guard from Dunkirk, France, a 21-year-old that sports a strong physical stature already. Coincidently, he’s garnered comparisons to Frank Ntilikina, another French-born defensive-minded and similarly-sized point guard. Although he’s struggled to find his footing under two different head coaches in two years, Ntilikina still went No. 8 overall not too long ago and N’Doye could project on the same wavelength.

For Cholet of the LNB Pro A, N’Doye has averaged 6.1 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.5 steals per game on 43.8 percent from three-point range. And for an athlete that puts up a little less than five shots every contest, N’Doye’s jumper looks study, all things considered. Physically, N’Doye frequently appears as if he’s in an entirely different stratosphere against his competition, often using his quick hands and ridiculously adapt wingspan to spring one-man fastbreaks.

Even if it takes a few seasons for the offense to catch up with the rest of his body, envisioning N’Doye as a day one contributor on defense doesn’t feel like a major stretch. The French circuit isn’t as competitive as Spain or Turkey, for example, but it’s still the league where Tony Parker, Boris Diaw, Nicolas Batum, Evan Fournier and Clint Capela all earned their stripes before heading stateside — in fact, Cholet was the team that birthed the early beginnings of Rudy Gobert from 2010-13.

So N’Doye, capable of moments like this and this, might be somebody worth keeping an eye on through the springtime.

For Brian Bowen, however, his long-winding journey is far from over, it appears.

Bowen, best known for his involvement in Louisville‘s recent scandal, is trying to claw his way back into draft contention. The quick-fire SparkNotes for the uninitiated: After Bowen was deemed ineligible to play for the Cardinals in 2017-18, the talented scorer tried to transfer to the University of South Caroline, where, following a two-semester NCAA transfer sit-out policy, he could begin rebuilding his NBA resume in early 2019. Instead, Bowen declared for the 2018 NBA Draft despite not participating in any collegiate games, went to the combine, didn’t sign an agent and eventually withdrew before the international deadline.

While this move effectively killed any lingering NCAA dreams, it left the G League and overseas route open as well as his NBA Draft eligibility. So, long story short, Bowen then signed with the Sydney Kings of the Australian NBL and his been plying his trade there since August in hopes of jumping back on front office consciousnesses with a full season of experience under his belt. Bowen may not have become the breakout star the Kings expected, but the 20-year-old has held his own in a decently competitive league.

The 6-foot-7 forward has tallied just 6.5 points and 3.1 rebounds over 28 games for Sydney — still, it’s far too early to give up on Bowen. Remember, it’s only a few years removed from Bowen being ranked as ESPN’s 14th-best high schooler in an absolutely stacked class that once included Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, Michael Porter Jr. and more.

Or, in other words, if Bowen declares for the 2019 NBA Draft and sticks with it this time, he’s got the makings of a perfect second-round homerun swing.

Lastly, there’s Darius Bazley, perhaps one of the most interesting cases in recent draft memory. Bazley, 18, was a former five-star recruit and a McDonald’s All-American that originally committed to play for Syracuse in 2018-19. At the last moment, Bazley decided to skip college altogether with plans to head to the G League for a season before jumping to the NBA. Before long, the 6-foot-9 southpaw forewent that intermediary league too, announcing that he’d spend the entire year training for the draft instead. And… that’s pretty much where things stand in early January.

Bazley has some impressive high school-level highlights that exhibit his above-average court-running abilities and slender frame — but, as always, those clips can be incredibly deceiving. For now, Bazley has taken up a million-dollar internship at New Balance but he’ll certainly land somewhere in second round come draft season. Of course, this path is close to that of the New York Knicks’ Mitchell Robinson, a ceilingless rookie that withdrew from Western Kentucky to train in private for the draft just last year. In order to keep the air of mysteriousness surrounding his on-court talents, Robinson dropped out of the NBA Draft Combine as well.

Ultimately, Robinson fell to No. 36th overall, where the Knicks were more than happy to grab the potential-laden center. If Robinson hadn’t missed a 14-game chunk already — and stayed out of foul trouble a bit better — he’d be spoken of as highly as Kurucs has been so far. Of note, over Robinson’s 42 appearances, he’s already brought in 25 multi-block efforts — for a second-rounder, that’s playing with house money. Naturally, Bazley has a tremendous distance to go before he even reaches Robinson territory, but this path to the NBA has found recent triumphs, he’ll just need to land in the right spot.

Zion Williamson is an otherworldly, once-in-a-generation prospect, just like Luka Dončić was before him. But while fans and general managers deservedly salivate over those teenagers, most franchises must dig far deeper to unearth under-the-radar contributors. Kurucs’ immediate accomplishments will bode well for front offices that continue to do their due diligence on late-round rookies. The Nets’ savviness has landed them a talented youngster at a multi-year cost-controlled price — but now it’s an outcome that the other 29 other teams will all look to replicate come June.

Between now and the NBA Draft, it’s all about uncovering the next Rodions Kurucs or Mitchell Robinson — but who will it be?

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NBA Daily: Five Storylines to Watch Down the Stretch

Shane Rhodes breaks down five storylines to keep an eye on as we approach the postseason.

Shane Rhodes

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The NBA was as active as ever prior to All-Star Break. Multiple trades (some of the blockbuster variety) were made as Anthony Davis rumors swirled, players butted heads with the media, and buyouts were made. There was news abound.

And there should be even more to come with teams prepped for the stretch run.

The last push toward the postseason has always been a tense one, for teams in and teams out alike. But what could be the biggest stories as we head into the last weeks of the regular season?

The Eastern Conference Arms Race

The battle for Eastern Conference supremacy has shown to be a hard fought one.

With LeBron James gone, there has been power-vacuum in the East, with multiple teams vying for the spot of best in the Conference. The Milwaukee Bucks have had the upper hand for much of the season – and should be considered the favorite to end the regular season in the top spot – but just 7.5 games separate them from the fifth-seed Boston Celtics, with the Toronto Raptors, Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers sandwiched in between.

While the NBA as a whole may seem cut and dry – the Golden State Warriors and everyone else – the East is not so simple. The Bucks, Celtics, Pacers, Raptors and 76ers all have talented rosters, but there is, effectively a deadlock between them. No one roster in this group is significantly more talented than another and no one team has shown that they can get the better of the other four on a consistent basis; every game between them has been competitive, and that should only reach another level as they square off against for the right to go to the NBA Finals.

Aside from the postseason positioning, the stretch-run for these individual teams could prove crucial to their offseason. Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris are all expected to hit the market and, if their respective teams fade, the chances of retaining their services may fade as well.

The Competitive Postseason Bubble

There are a number of teams, both Eastern and Western Conference, that have found themselves on the post-break postseason bubble.

In the East, just five games separate the sixth-seed Brooklyn Nets and the 11-seed Washington Wizards. While it may not be the cream of the crop going at it every night, these last few games will almost certainly be more competitive as players watch the standings and teams look to make up ground and push their seasons onward through April.

Out West, it’s more of the same.

Just four games separate the fifth-seed Houston Rockets and the 10-seed Los Angeles Lakers. Likewise, an uptick in competitive energy should be expected. However, there may be a bit more fireworks out West, as the Sacramento Kings, who have surprised everyone this season, look for their first postseason-berth since 2006. Meanwhile, the Lakers, in their first season with James, may miss the postseason altogether after they were pegged as a near-lock before the season.

The Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers all present their own interesting scenarios as well.

Regardless of the final outcome in either Conference, expect an exciting, if not frantic, end to the regular season.

The Three-Man Race for the MVP

Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and Paul George have each put forth superhuman effort this season. In a neck-and-neck race for the Most Valuable Player award, these three have proven to be invaluable to their respective teams and shown on a nightly basis that they belong among the NBA elite.

But, only one of them can win the award. So, who will take home the hardware?

Each player has made a compelling case so far; what Antetokounmpo does for the Bucks — and what he does to the box score (27.2 points, 12.7 rebounds, six assists per game) — on a nightly basis is self-explanatory; James Harden has willed the Houston Rockets into the postseason picture with some historic scoring numbers; and Paul George has shown that he is one of the best two-way players in the NBA and shouldered the load in Oklahoma City as Russell Westbrook has struggled.

As teams inch closer to the postseason, most will take the opportunity to rest their stars. If anyone of these players fades down the stretch — whether it be because of rest, fatigue or otherwise — the others could almost certainly use it to their advantage. If none of them slow down, however, the race between Antetokounmpo, Harden and George could prove one of the tightest we’ve ever seen.

The Anthony Davis Situation

The New Orleans Pelicans and Anthony Davis are caught between a rock and a hard place.

Anthony Davis doesn’t want to continue his career in New Orleans, but he does want to continue playing this season. However, the Pelicans have the right to protect themselves from a potential Davis injury, one that could irreparably damage his trade value and New Orleans’ future. Meanwhile, the NBA will almost certainly not want Davis, a premier player, languishing on the bench.

So, where do things go from here? Well, they get pretty awkward.

The Pelicans, Davis and the NBA need to come together in agreement on the best path forward for all parties involved and, with a handful of games remaining, they don’t have long to do so. At the very least, expect Davis to play far fewer minutes than he is accustomed to as the Pelicans look to minimize any and all injury risks.

The Battle for Zion

Not every team has the chance to make the postseason. But, with a generational talent like Zion Williamson on the line, not every team wants to make the postseason this year.

The New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have wallowed near the bottom of the NBA barrel for the entire season, all with their eyes fixed on Tuesday, May 14: the NBA Draft Lottery. While the NBA instituted a new lottery system to discourage tanking — the bottom three teams share the best chance at the top pick — it hasn’t stopped these teams from losing as many games as possible in a bid to make Williamson the first player off the board in the 2019 NBA Draft.

In a weird, backward way, it could be fun to watch these five teams “compete” for the bottom three spots and, eventually, the rights to Williamson.

As we inch closer to the postseason, don’t expect the NBA to wind down. While it may not seem as eventful trade season, these last few weeks of the regular season have a chance to be some of the most eventful of the entire year.

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NBA Daily: Examining the Eastern Conference Contenders

Matt John takes a look at the four titans who will be fighting for the Eastern Conference crown this May.

Matt John

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The day after the trade deadline passed, LeBron James had some interesting things to say about the arms race that was going down between the Eastern Conference titans.

“They know they ain’t gotta go through Cleveland anymore,” James said. “Everybody in the East thinks they can get to the Finals because they ain’t gotta go through me.”

It’s notable that the Lakers are currently toeing the line between making the playoffs and playing the lottery odds. That does, however, beg the question: What if LeBron stayed in Cleveland?

Now if that had happened, then a lot of things would probably be different for the Cavaliers right now. There’s no telling if they would have kept the pick the Nets owed them, or if they would be playing Kyle Korver, George Hill, and J.R. Smith right now.

It would have added another intriguing wrinkle to what has been the tightest formerly-five-currently-four-man race going on at the top of the Eastern Conference in quite some time. Whether you agree that Cleveland would still be the frontrunner in the East with James, there doesn’t really appear to be a clear-cut favorite to represent the East anymore. Plenty of fans and analysts would give their takes on who stands out among the pack, but there’s no consensus pick.

In a sense, LeBron’s kind of right. He was a tyrant – or a “King” if you will – that set the bar year-in and year-out for the past decade. It gave his rivals motivation to play at one hundred percent, though it made the East a little predictable. With LeBron gone, the suspense as to who will take his throne makes it all the more fun.

The season is now coming down the home stretch. With less than 25 games left, Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Boston will fight tooth and nail to get home court advantage over each other. Who has the edge? Well, let’s take a look.

Milwaukee Bucks
Record: 44-14
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .465 (27th overall)
Record against competitors: 5-2

They finally did it. After years of looking as incredible as they were inconsistent, the Bucks have hit a breakthrough. It turns out all they needed was to put the right personnel around the Greek Freak (i.e. floor spacers and impact defenders). Oh, and a coach who could bring all of the notable talent together. The pieces are now fitting into place for the Bucks. Giannis is now going full-throttle with a supporting cast who only make Milwaukee all the harder to stop. Their league-leading point differential (9.6) tops the league by a fair margin, which indicates that this may not only be a fluke but the first sign of the glorious future we all believed the Bucks had.

MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo – If it weren’t for James Harden putting up legendary numbers, Giannis would be the frontrunner for MVP. So much has been said about him that there’s not much to be added, so let’s leave it at this. Many have said if he starts hitting threes, he’ll be unstoppable. When you see his dominance in the paint – he’s shooting 77.3 percent in the paint – it makes you wonder if he really has to.
X-Factor: Eric Bledsoe – He’s had a nice bounce-back after a rocky half-season in Milwaukee. The record still stands that he was outplayed by Terry Rozier in his first playoff action as a starter. If the Bucks are to maintain their success in the postseason, Bledsoe must avoid a repeat performance from last postseason.
Unsung Hero: Malcolm Brogdon – People can scoff all they want at Brogdon’s Rookie of the Year Award. The fact is, the Bucks absolutely need him. They are +7.1 with him on the court, good for second behind, well, who do you think?
Pivotal Question: Will the supporting cast (including Coach Bud) keep it up in the playoffs?

Toronto Raptors
Record: 43-16
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .450 (30th overall)
Record against competitors: 6-5

Do you know what’s odd about the Raptors? Going by net rating, they’ve actually taken a step back this season. Last season, the Raptors had the second best offensive rating (113.8) and the fifth best defensive rating (105.9). This season, they have the seventh-best offensive rating (113) and the eighth best defensive rating (107.4). Yet somehow, the genuine belief is that this is the best team they’ve ever assembled. With Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin added to the team, the Raptors have made it clear that they’re not messing around.

MVP: Kawhi Leonard – Remember when Kevin Durant implied that Kawhi was a system player for the Spurs? Maybe that’s why Kawhi wanted out because he’s proven that notion wrong. He hasn’t skipped a beat in Canada and has even averaged career-highs both in scoring and rebounding average. He’d be an MVP candidate if he hadn’t missed 16 games.
X-Factor: Kyle Lowry – If Leonard is going to be the alpha dog of this team, he needs a second-in-command. Lowry’s numbers have dipped, but he’s got the experience. He’s folded in the playoffs before. Perhaps with less pressure, he can step up his game.
Unsung Hero: Serge Ibaka – With everything else that’s gone right for Toronto, Ibaka’s full acclimation to the center position has given him new life offensively. He’s putting up some of the best scoring, rebounding, and assist averages he’s had either ever or in years.
Pivotal Question: Will Nick Nurse get the team finally past its long-lived playoff demons?

Philadelphia 76ers
Record: 38-21
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .486 (21st Overall)
Record against competitors: 1-7

We have seen three iterations of the Sixers this season. One with Dario Saric and Robert Covington, one that added Jimmy Butler, then one that added primarily Tobias Harris among others. That’s a lot of talent to integrate in such a short time. Lucky for them, by adding Butler and Harris, the Sixers have the most talented starting five in the East. The Process is now at 100 percent capacity. They may have holes, but their Warriors-esque talent level may make it so that it won’t be a problem.

MVP: Joel Embiid – At age 24, Embiid has now taken his first steps into superstardom. 27.3 points, 13.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists along with 1.9 blocks is sure to Joel among the ranks of the league’s top centers. Perhaps what’s most encouraging is that, before this recent knee ailment, Embiid has only missed five games.
X-Factor: The Bench – The Sixers also loaded up the second unit by adding Boban Marjanovic, Mike Scott, Jonathon Simmons and James Ennis III. By doing so, they really are committing to positionless basketball. It honestly could work if they use it to the best advantage they could.
Unsung Hero: Jimmy Butler – Butler’s fit with the Sixers hasn’t been smooth, but, even with the decreased scoring numbers, Butler is quietly putting up some of the most efficient percentages he’s ever had this season, both from three and the field itself.
Pivotal Question: Will they be able to stop any elite point guards?

Boston Celtics
Record: 37-22
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .516 (10th Overall)
Record against competitors: 6-3

The Celtics are somehow a team that’s played badly enough that they’re a disappointment yet played well enough that people shouldn’t give up on them. After a mediocre start, most of the results that have come from the Celtics have been positive. That’s come with some frustrating losses, but the team has been resilient after every bad stretch they’ve had. A common characteristic of Brad Stevens teams is that they play at their best as the season approaches its end. With their guys finally getting past their injury issues, we may see more of the same in the best way yet.

MVP: Kyrie Irving – Kyrie’s chaotic free agency plans have gotten in the way of what’s been a great season for him. He’s put up his usual scoring numbers, but his passing, rebounding and defense have been the best they’ve ever been. The Celtics have proven their fine without him. They’re still better off having him on the court.
X-Factor: Gordon Hayward – It’s been reported to death by now that Hayward’s made some encouraging process in recent weeks. Let’s leave it at this – if he is 100 percent by the playoffs, that makes the Celtics so much scarier. People forget just how good Gordon Hayward was merely two years ago.
Unsung Hero: Al Horford – After the last Celtics-Sixers game, many believe Horford is going to be a matchup problem for Embiid. Correction: Horford’s skillset and IQ make him a matchup problem for everyone.
Pivotal Question: Will they find a consistent rhythm by the season’s end?

Some of you are probably going to be outraged that Indiana is not included on this list, and for good reason. They still are the third-seeded team in the East, they’ve just recently had a six-game winning streak snapped, and they have one of the league’s best defenses.

With all due respect, it’s pretty simple. No Victor Oladipo, no contest. The Pacers are still one of the most well-liked and well-rounded teams in the league. It doesn’t change the fact that in the playoffs, having star power gives a huge advantage. Without Oladipo, Indiana is completely deprived of it.

If it’s any comfort, with a fully healthy Oladipo next season, they are more than worthy of being put with this group.

Here’s to hoping that by next year, this group will stay the same when he does.

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