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NBA Daily: The Season From Hell

It’s one thing to be bad. It’s another to disappoint when you had such strong aspirations. Matt John dives into why the Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz are going through a season from hell.

Matt John

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There are several ways in which a team can experience a season from hell.

The most common one being among the worst teams in the league. Losing pretty much night in and night out for 82 games a season is never a fun ride for anyone. The one solace to all of that? If you lose that many games in a season, it’s probably because you weren’t expected to win coming into the season. You can’t really disappoint when not much was expected of you to begin with. That’s the one solace to take for New York Knicks fans.

Another interpretation is when the injury bug ruins the season. It’s tough to watch a team that had the potential to be something special only to be ruined by battle wounds. There is a solace to all of that as well. As bad as things may be, the one comfort is that with past success, things were supposed to be better but, through no one’s wrongdoing, it just hasn’t. That’s the one upside to being a Portland Trail Blazers fan.

However, the worst variation of the season from hell is when a team that came into the season swimming in championship aspirations don’t look one bit like the team they were supposed to be. Why is this one the worst? Because there is no upside. Disappointment may have been a possibility, but the odds were very low, and even if it was in play, it wasn’t supposed to be to that degree. Maybe some injuries have come along, but even when the team’s healthy, it’s not making much of a difference regardless.

It isn’t a pleasant experience, and it makes the season seem much longer than it is. The worst part is that the potential was there. They just couldn’t reach it. Several teams over this past decade alone have endured through their own season from hell. The 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers. The 2015-16 Houston Rockets. The 2017-18 Washington Wizards. The 2018-19 Boston Celtics. It’s rare to see one team go through something like this in a season.

In the 2019-20 season, we have two: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Utah Jazz.

The Sixers and the Jazz have nearly identical records — but Utah has one less loss at 37-22. They are both in the thick of the playoff race in both of their respective conferences. Moreover, both had two players from their roster representing the franchise during the All-Star Game in Chicago, as they should have. Yet, there seems to not be much surrounding either team besides pure melancholy.

How did this happen? For Philly, it’s a little explainable because the warning signs were there. JJ Redick alone did so much because of the spacing he provided, but he departed for New Orleans. Jimmy Butler gave the 76ers a cushion with his go-to scoring when Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons didn’t have it going and, he too, left.

The prevailing theory was that Philadelphia still had Embiid and Simmons – two of the league’s best players 25 and under – so, even with those departures, as long as they had the right support system around them, the team would only continue to grow. Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson and Al Horford among others are stellar supporting options as well.

And that’s the problem. They’re just not the right ones. The pieces just don’t fit together. Both Harris and Richardson have been productive in their roles, but they haven’t been able to replicate the same outputs they had with their previous teams. Horford has been a flat-out disaster as the fit with Embiid has not been good — much of that attributed to the former’s physical decline. The two have a net rating of minus-1.1 when they share the court – so the handsomely-paid Horford has been relegated to a bench role.

The idea that the 76ers might be better off trading one of Embiid or Simmons has picked up a fair amount of steam. Their two-man net rating isn’t exactly great – sharing a net rating os plus-0.9 – and with the floor spacing not as good as it once was – Philadelphia is 19th in the NBA in three-point field goal percentage – teams are exploiting the lack of shooting that Embiid and Simmons provide.

What baffles is that the 76ers have the look of a contender at home, having gone 28-2 – a better home record than the Milwaukee Bucks – while simultaneously looking awful on the road, winning only nine of 30 games.

It hasn’t been all bad. Matisse Thybulle has been as good as advertised defensively while proving himself to be a much better shooter than we thought, hitting on 36 percent from distance. Furkan Korkmaz has also come alive as a floor spacer. Even Simmons, who still has yet to prove that he can actually shoot a basketball, has improved his individual defense enough that he is very much in the running for a spot on an All-Defense roster.

But that shouldn’t be the biggest positives coming out of Philadelphia. This was supposed to be the year they took the next step. Instead, they’re on a 50-win pace. That wouldn’t be so bad seeing how they won 51 games last year, but staying the same when you were supposed to be in the title conversation is not a good sign.

The same can be said about the Jazz.

They too were expected to take a bigger leap this season, which, in all fairness is harder in the Western Conference, but they’re on pace to win 50 as well — a total that would match their wins mark from last season.

For the Jazz, it’s a little stranger to see this result from them. It’s true that they lost some key culture-forming pieces like Derrick Favors, Ricky Rubio and Jae Crowder, but it was clear that the team’s ceiling with those guys next to Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert was limited — especially on the offensive end.

More importantly, they replaced them with excellently-perceived locker room guys that should’ve upgraded the roster as far as talent went. No one took issue with them bringing in Mike Conley Jr., Bojan Bogdanovic and Ed Davis among others. In fact, the common belief was that the Jazz would be a sleeper in the conference because their roster makeup had little holes.

But alas, it hasn’t been that way. Not at all.

Utah’s offense certainly has improved – they rank 10th in offensive rating scoring 112.1 points per 100 possessions – but the airtight defense that Salt Lake once prided themselves on has fallen out of the top ten. They currently rank 12th in defensive rating by allowing 109.2 points per 100 possessions.

The improvement on the offensive end stems unsurprisingly from Mitchell’s growth – 24.7 points on 46/36/86 splits – and the vastly improved three-point shooting, topping the league in percentage at 38.2. Not to mention, Jordan Clarkson has been freaking awesome for them – where would they be right now if they hadn’t traded for him? Still, they remain the same because defensively, they’ve taken a step back.

Bogdanovic has not helped Utah’s cause on that side of the ball, and because the Davis signing has flopped so badly, Utah’s interior defense suffers when Gobert goes out despite Tony Bradley’s best efforts. It might be safe to say that enough credit wasn’t given to Rubio, Favors and Crowder for what they did on that end. Just as it might be safe to say with his struggles and all, Utah acquired Conley at the wrong time.

It’s made Utah not as enjoyable to watch, too, and that’s why their season from hell has been so odd. This Jazz team competed in the conference for the last two years because they rose above their collective talent. The cohesion and sense of togetherness made them both fun to watch and easy to root for. Now, it’s not just that their progress has stagnated. The body language looks… different.

Of course, that’s just one instance — but that chip on their shoulder just doesn’t seem to be there anymore. The Jazz will still make the playoffs pending any serious injury to Mitchell or Gobert, alas, their hopes of going on a long playoff run are fizzling as fast as the 76ers’ have.

If this really is where both seasons are headed, they then have to think about what their next move might be when it all ends. After 2013, the Lakers spent a lot of time picking up the pieces post-Dwight Howard. Following 2016, the Rockets re-tooled and built a better core around James Harden.

They say it’s not over until the fat lady sings and although she hasn’t done that for Philadelphia or Utah quite yet — she sure has been whistling for a bit now.

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NBA Daily: Is Stephen Curry the MVP?

Given the prolific season Stephen Curry is having, despite the Golden State Warriors being ninth in the Western Conference, does his impact make him the Most Valuable Player in the NBA this season?

Bobby Krivitsky

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In the aftermath of Klay Thompson suffering an Achilles tear that ended his season before it began, no one would have blamed Stephen Curry for prioritizing his preservation through the 2020-21 campaign.

Instead, despite the Golden State Warriors lacking the necessary talent to become a title contender, Curry’s doing everything in his power to get them into the playoffs.

The two-time league MVP is on pace to win the scoring title for the second time in his career. In a recent road loss against the Boston Celtics, Curry put up 47 points, becoming the second player in Warriors history to score 30 or more points in 10-straight games, joining Wilt Chamberlain. 

In his last 11 contests, Curry’s averaging 40 points on shooting splits that aren’t supposed to be possible at the game’s highest level. Even though he’s hoisting 14.3 attempts from beyond the arc per game, he’s making them at a 49.7 percent clip. He’s taking 23.4 shots from the field but still seeing the ball go through the hoop 54.1 percent of the time.

The context of how Curry’s producing those prodigious numbers makes them even more impressive. He is the only scoring threat on Golden State who defenses need to concern themselves with — stop Curry, win the game; it’s that simple, at least in theory it is.

 

Another layer of what makes Curry’s prolific scoring so impressive is the energy he’s exerting to do so. According to NBA.com’s tracking data, Curry’s running 1.43 miles per game on offense, which is the sixth-most league-wide. And what that figure doesn’t fully capture is that while Curry has a lightning-quick release and is masterful at creating the sliver of daylight he needs to get his shot off, it takes a significant amount of energy to do that once, let alone throughout a game.

Even though Curry’s already the greatest shooter of all time, he’s taken the most lethal part of his game to new heights. From 2015 when the Warriors won their first NBA championship to 2019, a stretch in which they reached the finals every year, step-back threes accounted for just eight percent of Curry’s shooting profile from beyond the arc. But this season, Curry knew it would be more challenging to create shots for himself, which is why he’s doubled that figure to 16 percent and he’s knocking down 51.5 percent of his step-back threes, per NBA.com.

Curry’s also putting more pressure on opponents from further away from the hoop than he has in years past. According to NBA.com, from 2015 through 2019, five percent of his threes came from 30 to 40 feet. This season, shots from that distance account for 10 percent of his three-point attempts. Just like when defenses double team him out of a pick-and-roll, Curry forcing teams to defend him from further out is another way for him to create 4-3 opportunities for his teammates.

 

After that loss against the Celtics, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said Curry’s “at the peak of his powers.” Though he’s not just putting his talents towards individual production, he is the primary reason Golden State’s firmly in the play-in tournament. The Warriors currently reside ninth in the Western Conference. They’re one game behind the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and two back of the seventh-ranked Dallas Mavericks. 

As impressive an individual season as Curry’s having and as vital as he’s been to his team’s success this season, the reality is the Warriors haven’t won at a high enough level for him to win Most Valuable Player honors for the third time in his career. Currently, Nikola Jokic is the leading MVP candidate. While it’s fair to point out the Denver Nuggets aren’t even in the top three in the Western Conference, Jokic ranks first in player efficiency rating, win shares, box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He’s averaging 26.4 points, 11.1 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 1.4 steals per game. 

If Jokic misses enough of Denver’s remaining games, someone could usurp him for the right to win MVP. In that scenario, Curry would have a chance to become the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for a third time, but he’d have to sway voters from giving it to Joel Embiid. Embiid’s in the midst of a career season, ranking second in player efficiency rating, eighth in win shares and fourth in box plus/minus. He’s averaging 29.9 points, 11.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while leading the Philadelphia 76ers to the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Curry ranks sixth in player efficiency rating, seventh in win shares and is second in both box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He has a case for MVP, but Jokic and Embiid are capping off career seasons while leading their respective teams to a higher level of success. Yes, their teams are more talented and there probably isn’t enough weight put on how valuable an individual is to his team, but the reality is the MVP typically goes to the best player on a top team. Furthermore, that argument also applies to Jokic, who’s the lone All-Star on a team with a better record.

Not naming Curry this season’s Most Valuable Player doesn’t mean his prolific production isn’t appreciated. Nor should it get taken as a sign elevating his team, somehow finding ways to become a more dangerous shooter and investing as much energy as he has into a season that won’t end with a championship isn’t garnering respect from the NBA community. That includes fans whose favorite team doesn’t reside in the Bay Area.

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NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Path Back to the NBA Finals

In the wake of Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Bobby Krivitsky examines the Los Angeles Lakers’ path back to the NBA Finals.

Bobby Krivitsky

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It’s been 15 games since a high ankle sprain sidelined LeBron James. 

With the Western Conference standings congested and Anthony Davis already out due to a right calf strain and a re-aggravation of his right Achilles tendinosis, the Los Angeles Lakers faced the threat of a fall that would require their participation in the play-in tournament.

However, the Lakers have fought admirably in the absence of their two stars, going seven and eight. As a result, their fall in the standings has been painless, going from third at the time of James’ injury to now occupying fifth place in the West.

The primary reason the Lakers have been able to tread water without their two stars is they’ve remained stingy on defense. Since James’ injury, they have the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. That’s despite facing four teams who rank in the top five in offensive rating and six of the categories’ top-10 members.

Right now, the Lakers are 2.5 games ahead of the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, with a 4.5-game cushion between them and the Dallas Mavericks, who are seventh in the conference. That should be a large enough gap to keep Los Angeles out of the play-in tournament, but the two teams are going to converge for a two-game series starting Thursday. For the Lakers, getting swept would re-open the possibility of having to compete in the play-in tournament.

Fortunately for them, even splitting that series would make it unlikely the Mavericks finish ahead of the Lakers in the standings. And help might be on the way for the Lakers: Davis may soon rejoin the lineup, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, meaning there’s a distinct possibility he’s active for at least one of those two matchups. As for James, he’s on track to return in three weeks.

While Los Angeles’ stars are getting closer to making their returns, the Denver Nuggets got dealt a more severe blow when Jamal Murray tore his ACL in a recent game against the Golden State Warriors. Denver is 10-2 since acquiring Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline and looked the part of a legitimate title contender prior to Murray’s injury. 

Denver is fourth in the West, 1.5 games ahead of Los Angeles. But even if the Nuggets have home-court advantage, they’re the preferable opening-round opponent, not just for Los Angeles, but any team with a legitimate chance at the fourth or fifth seed.

Fortunately for the Lakers, that’s the place in the Western Conference pecking order where they’re most likely to finish this season. So long as the Nuggets don’t freefall in Murray’s absence, Los Angeles will likely start the playoffs against an opponent that’s gone from having the potential to present the greatest challenge to the defending champions’ quest to get back to the Finals to becoming a desirable first-round matchup.

After that, the Lakers may have to get past the Utah Jazz and or the Los Angeles Clippers to make a return trip to the NBA Finals. The former has the best record in the league this season, but locking horns with the defending champions in a best of seven series is a far more challenging and potentially rewarding proving ground.

The Jazz have a deep, reliable rotation, they have the best net rating in the NBA, they’re in the top five in points for and against per 100 possessions, and they’re attempting the most threes per game, but also rank in the top five in three-point shooting percentage. However, the Lakers would have the two best players in a series against Utah. Usually, an opponent doesn’t overcome that disadvantage.  

As for the Clippers, Rajon Rondo has quickly proven to be an impactful acquisition. Los Angeles is seven and one with him in the lineup, generating the highest net rating in the league during that span. Last season, the Lakers saw first-hand how impactful playoff Rondo can be. Now, the Clippers are hoping he can bring structure to their offense, something they sorely lacked last postseason and was at the forefront of them blowing a 3-1 series lead over the Nuggets. Doing so would go a long way towards maximizing the production of a team that has the talent to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time in franchise history.

If this is the year the battle of LA takes place in the postseason, it figures to be a slugfest. Still, the Clippers have their doubters after last year’s meltdown in the playoffs. There’s also a large contingency who are skeptical about how far the Jazz can go in the postseason, given their lack of a top-tier superstar. Despite the validity of those concerns, both teams can beat the Lakers in a best of seven series. That no longer appears to be the case for the Nuggets, which is a shame for them and people who want to see the best possible matchups in the playoffs. But Murray’s injury, as unfortunate an occurrence as it is, makes it easier for the Lakers to get through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference and have a chance to claim an 18th championship, which would break their tie with the Boston Celtics for the most titles in NBA history.

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NBA

NBA AM: The Play-In Game – West

With the season winding down, Ariel Pacheco takes a look at how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Western Conference.

Ariel Pacheco

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With the regular season’s end in sight, teams are making their last push to make the playoffs in what has been a condensed season. But the new play-in tournament is providing more teams than ever a chance at a coveted playoff spot.

Here is what the new play-in tournament will look like: Teams that finish with the Nos 7 and 8 seeds will face off against each other. The winner of this game will be No. 7. The Nos. 9 and 10 seeds will also play and the winner will play the loser of the first game. The winner of this game will be the No. 8 seed. 

The play-in tournament provides intrigue and adds pressure on teams in both conferences to finish in the top six and avoid the play-in altogether. The Western Conference, in particular, is shaping up to have a rather exciting finish. There are a number of teams who could find themselves fighting for their playoff lives in this year’s tournament – all below in tiers.

Teams Likely To Avoid Play-In

Portland Trail Blazers (32-24)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 11

The Trail Blazers are currently the sixth seed in the West meaning, for now, they are safe from the play-in tournament. However, they are just two games above the Mavericks from possibly dropping down a place. They’re the team most likely to secure that sixth seed because they have more talent than the teams below them – hello, Dame – and they also have an elite offense. However, the defensive concerns are very real and if they were to slip, it would likely be because of their struggles on that side of the ball.

Likely Play-In Teams

Dallas Mavericks

Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 5
Games Against West: 8

On paper, the Mavs have a really easy schedule as the season winds down. They have just five games against teams over .500 and two against the Los Angeles Lakers, who may be without their two stars for those games. However, they are just 10-12 this season against sub .500 teams and are coming off a disappointing loss to the Sacramento Kings. There’s still a pretty good chance they get the sixth seed and avoid the play-in, but it also wouldn’t be surprising to see them in it as well.

Memphis Grizzlies
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 7
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 12

The Grizzlies are often overlooked, but they are about as well-coached as any other team in the NBA. It is likely they will be in the play-in game, but don’t be surprised if they are able to sneak into the sixth seed. They lost last year’s play-in game in the Bubble to the Blazers, so they do have experience in this type of setting. They may be getting Jaren Jackson Jr. back soon which should help. 

Golden State Warriors
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 6
Games Against West: 13

The Warriors are getting just other-worldly performances from Stephen Curry on an almost nightly basis at this point. However, they continue to struggle to win games, in large part due to the struggles when he sits on the bench. Their schedule is pretty light to close the season, which bolsters their chances. The talent on this team isn’t great, but Curry’s play should be enough to get them in the play-in tournament. 

San Antonio Spurs
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 7

The Spurs have struggled of late, especially after the All-Star break. Their defense has dropped off badly, but if there’s any reason to be positive, it’s that they are still coached by Gregg Popovich and their young guys continue to show improvement. They have been really good on the road this season and a majority of their games are on the road. It won’t be easy, but the Spurs should find themselves in the play-in tournament.

Outside Looking In

New Orleans Pelicans
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 9
Games Against West: 11

The Pelicans have been hit with the injury bug of late, but their inconsistent play this season continues to be a huge problem. Their defense continues to bleed three-pointers and while point Zion Williamson has worked, there just isn’t enough shooting to maximize him just yet. It seems unlikely the Pelicans make a late-season run to the play-in game.

Sacramento Kings

Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 14

The Kings are the least likely team to make the play-in tournament. Their defense is still problematic and they just recently ended their 9-game losing streak. It’ll take a huge late-season push and the Kings just haven’t shown that they are capable of putting it all together for a long enough stretch. 

The play-in tournament adds a new layer of competition that will bring excitement at the end of the season. Be sure to check out how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Eastern Conference.

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