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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run – Atlantic Division

Ben Nadeau praises the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, while also gently eulogizing another season gone wrong for both teams in New York.

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The Stretch Run.

With 20-odd games remaining on the schedule, it’s officially make-or-break time for the majority of the league — unless your franchise rhymes with Los Shamjealous or Hillmockie, of course. With tantalizing lottery picks for those that bottom out or home-court postseason revenue for teams that push forward, the post-All-Star break jockeying is always fascinating.

As of Feb. 20, however, most of the Eastern Conference — and particularly so, the Atlantic Division — is cut and dried. From hyped-up expectations to the somewhat-disappointing, one of the conference’s perennially-strongest divisions is looking robust once again. Although all of them presumably lag behind the Giannis Antetokounmpo-led Bucks, the bloodbath for the right to face Milwaukee appears to be better than ever.

But before even getting into the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets’ varying playoff hopes, a rapid-fire eulogy for the New York Knicks must first be had. Fans who once dreamt off trotting out Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Zion Williamson — but ask the Nets and New Orleans Pelicans how life without them went, to be fair — had to settle for trading away Marcus Morris at the trade deadline earlier this month.

At 17-38, there are only a handful of franchises worse off in the standings department — Minnesota, Atlanta, Cleveland and Golden State — and absurdity continues to reign in Manhattan. David Fizdale was unceremoniously ousted in December and was replaced by interim head coach Mike Miller, who was then (accidentally) dissed by Steve Stoute on an ESPN morning show. Even Steve Mills was out as president after tapping Leon Rose, another superagent turned front office executive.

On the roster side, Frank Ntilikina is playing less than ever, the aforementioned Morris led the team in points per game (19.6) and Bobby Portis already shot down any idea of a buyout. Kevin Knox, 20, has seen his minutes and averages nearly halved, while Mitchell Robinson has only played more than 25 minutes on 18 occasions. The Knicks desperately have searched for continuity and clarity only to come up empty-handed time and time again.

Thankfully, RJ Barrett looks like the real deal and, according to Marc Berman of The New York Post, the Knicks have begun to look at the upcoming draft to nail down a scoring point guard as the next franchise cornerstone.

With some real, tangible turnover in New York — and some incredibly solid youngsters to boot — it’s far too early to anoint the franchise as revitalized, but they’ve taken some important first steps toward doing so.

And despite stealing away Durant and Irving during the offseason, their cross-river rivals in Brooklyn haven’t fared much better at all. Irving, when he’s played, has been sensational — unfortunately, he’s reached the floor in just 20 total games thus far and is now out indefinitely (again) after re-aggravating that troublesome right shoulder (again). The 27-year-old point guard missed the All-Star Game for the first time since 2015-16 and his season — plus whatever lingering postseason hopes the Nets had — are quickly setting. Durant, as planned, hasn’t logged a minute yet — and likely won’t — while Rodions Kurucs hasn’t matched last year’s breakout campaign and Joe Harris has seen a considerable drop from three-point range too.

At 25-28, Brooklyn owns the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference, some 2.5 games ahead of the Orlando Magic. It’s hard to imagine the Nets falling out of the postseason entirely — the ninth-seeded Washington Wizards are just 20-33 — but there’s little chance they catch the Indiana Pacers at No. 6, especially following the return of Victor Oladipo. If Irving is shelved for much longer and Durant sits out the entire year, the Nets’ best-case scenario becomes stealing a postseason game from Milwaukee or Toronto before bowing out in the first round.

After arguably winning the offseason, it’s a tough pill to swallow in Brooklyn — but, at the very least, there are undeniable better days ahead.

And then that leaves three: Toronto, Boston and Philadelphia.

Today, at 34-21, the 76ers are the most disappointing of the bunch as they often struggle to play to both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid’s strengths at once. Simmons, 23, for all his other-worldly playmaking — and previous talk of a summertime-made jumper — has only attempted six three-pointers in 2019-20. The defense is as fearful as ever and rates at 106.1 — good for fourth-best, but sadly behind the Celtics, Raptors and Bucks — so counting the 76ers out of a deep playoff run would be downright shameful.

But in back-to-back-to-back contests before the All-Star break, the 76ers lost to the Celtics, Miami HEAT — the franchise occupying the No. 4 seed ahead of them — and Bucks. The deadline fits of both Glenn Robinson III and Alec Burks need some time, but Philadelphia is one of the few legitimate contenders in the conference that actually tried to improve their roster this month — which speaks to the still-strong internal hopes of the franchise.

Just as the Nets are nearly locked into the No. 7 or 8 seed, the 76ers won’t drop any lower than sixth place either. And although both Boston and Toronto have gained an inch of separation in the conference hierarchy, Philadelphia now finds themselves in the midst of a three-team brawl for home-court advantage in the first round. With Philadelphia’s unbelievable ceiling of potential and inherent inconsistency, it’s too early to predict where exactly they’ve fall come playoff time — but, make no mistake, this is a roster no opposing team will be excited to face.

On the other hand, Boston is peaking at just the right time as head coach Brad Stevens continues to push all the right buttons. Jayson Tatum, fresh off his first-ever All-Star berth, is a force to be reckoned with (22.4 points, 6.9 rebounds) and Kemba Walker has found himself right at home in the Garden. Surely the Celtics would love to avoid the Bucks for as long as possible and to do so, they’ll need to skip Toronto over the season’s final few months — however, even without Kawhi Leonard, that’s easier said than done.

The Celtics boast top-five ratings on both sides of the ball and, in spite of everybody’s doomsday-worthy proclamations, the 1-2 punch of Enes Kanter and Daniel Theis under the rim have more than sufficed. It’ll begin to sound like a repetitive cliche — and just wait for Toronto to fill out this trifecta — but Boston is still Boston: Hard-nosed and even harder-working, they’re an absolute shoo-in for home-court advantage in the first round at the very least.

But the Raptors currently stand as the Atlantic Division crown jewel, ready as ever to defend their conference throne.

You know the details by now: Leonard is dealt to Toronto and he wins the city their first-ever championship ring before signing with Los Angeles last July. Without last weekend’s All-Star MVP in tow, the Raptors were expected to sharply fall down the standings — playoffs, maybe, but this? Certainly not.

This is domination. This is an elite defensive unit. This is a franchise that not only lived on after their superstar left — but then thrived off that departure. Sans Leonard, the Raptors are only 40-15, good for the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. Crazier, right now, the Raptors are on pace to win as many regular-season games as they did with Leonard.

If not for the single-digit loss Bucks, they’d probably be the NBA’s darling story of the season once again. Pascal Siakam, 25, has blossomed into superstardom — 23.5 points, 7.5 rebounds — and is a more-than-worthy mark to pin the franchise’s back-to-back hopes upon. But perhaps even more impressive is Toronto’s ability to shuffle through next-man-up cards with reckless abandon. In fact, post-All-Star break, Terence Davis, an undrafted rookie, is the only player to have featured in all 55 games.

Every major member outside of OG Anunoby has missed a chunk of the season, too: Fred VanVleet, 10; Pascal Siakam, 11; Serge Ibaka, 11; Kyle Lowry, 12; Norman Powell, 17; Marc Gasol, 20.

And yet, they relentlessly compete like bonafide champions.

Toronto is likely destined for a second-round showdown with either Boston and Philadelphia — that much seems ultimately clear. But in the conference’s suddenly-thickening race to the top, for the first time in a long time, it’s still anybody’s best guess as to who will come out on top. Simply put, if you want star power — bank on Simmons, Embiid and the 76ers. If you want pedigreed basketball on both sides of the floor — there’s Walker, Tatum and the Celtics.

But if you want to back a franchise that was left for relative dead mere months after hoisting a championship trophy — well, Siakam, Lowry and the Raptors may just be the heavyweight title contender the conference has been waiting for.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his third year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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Grizzlies trade Jonas Valanciunas to Pelicans for Eric Bledsoe, Steven Adams

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Andrew Lopez, the New Orleans Pelicans are shipping guard Eric Bledsoe, center Steven Adams, the Nos. 10 and 40 picks of the 2021 NBA Draft, and two future first-round picks to the Memphis Grizzlies for center Jonas Valanciunas and the Nos. 17 and 51 picks of this week’s upcoming draft. So, the Pelicans are giving up the Lakers’ 2022 first-round pick. Valanciunas, the 29-year-old veteran center, averaged 17.1 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game in 62 games played throughout the 2020-21 season. He also shot 59 percent from the field. The seven-foot Lithuanian also ranks fourth overall in true shooting percentage (.616) among active players. On July 11, 2019, Valanciunas signed a three-year, $45 million contract with the Grizzlies. He is set to earn $4 million next season.

Additionally, in 71 games played last season, Bledsoe averaged 12.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. The six-foot-one guard also shot 42.1 percent from the field in the 2020-21 season. On November 23, 2020, as part of a four-team trade, Bledsoe and Adams were traded to the Pelicans from the Oklahoma City Thunder, along with two future first-round picks and the right to swap two additional first-round picks. Last season, in 71 games played, Bledsoe averaged 12.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. His field goal percentage was 42.1 percent as well. The 11-year veteran is set to earn $18,125,000 in the 2021-22 season. Before he was traded to New Orleans, on March 4, 2019, the guard signed a four-year, $70 million extension. He earned his first All-Defensive second-team selection in the 2019-20 season.

Moreover, in 58 games played last season, Adams averaged 7.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. The six-foot-eleven center ranks fifth among active players for effective field goal shooting percentage (.591). The eight-year veteran also ranks third in offensive rebounding percentage, with an active statistic of 14 percent. On November 23, 2020, the same day Adams was traded to the Pelicans, he signed a two-year, $35 million extension. For next season, he is projected to earn $17,073,171. To add to this trade news, the Grizzlies and Pelicans are swapping second-round picks in this year’s draft, too. Referencing NBA.com’s “Consensus Mock Draft” article, with the No. 10 pick of the draft, the Pelicans were originally expected to draft either Josh Giddey or Davion Mitchell at this number. However, plans have now changed.

From ESPN’s Bobby Marks, the trade will not be finalized until August 6th, and this is because of the annual salaries of these said players. Free agency will begin on August 2, 6:00 p.m. (EST). Furthermore, per Spotrac’s 2021-22 NBA salary cap table, next season’s luxury tax threshold is $136,606,000. The team’s current available luxury tax space is $22,555,195. The Pelicans and Grizzlies have a salary cap maximum of $112,414,000. Brandon Ingram, Bledsoe, and Adams had a combined cap percentage of 39.2 percent. Considering that Bledsoe and Adams are traded away, this will clear up $35,198,171 of dead cap space.

Yesterday, CBS Sports reported the news pertaining to Lonzo Ball’s desire to remain in New Orleans. With extra cap space, the team is expected to re-sign the 23-year-old guard. Likewise, for the Grizzlies, the teams has a luxury tax space of $37,019,952. Their current cap space is $8,321,229. As stated before, the transactions have not yet been finalized. The Grizzlies’ outgoing cap is now $14 million, but from the contracts of Adams and Bledsoe, they are bringing in $35,198,171.

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NBA Trade Rumors: Jazz considering trade offers for Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale, and No. 30 pick of the 2021 NBA Draft

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Per one interesting announcement from Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer, the Utah Jazz are open to trading forward Bojan Bogdanovic, forward-guard Joe Ingles, small forward Royce O’Neale, and the No. 30 pick of the 2021 NBA Draft. Fischer stated, “The Utah Jazz are known to be one of the few teams actually searching to move playoff-tested talent. Retaining Mike Conley is an offseason priority, sources said, and the Jazz have held numerous discussions with teams around the league about offloading salary to create for Conley in free agency.” Point guard Mike Conley is set to become a free agent this offseason. Though, general manager Justin Zanik will aim to re-sign the 33-year-old guard in the coming weeks. Conley earned $34.5 million in the 2020-21 season.

“League personnel most often mention Joe Ingles as the Jazz wing to watch, and Bojan Bogdanovic and Royce O’Neale are also considered available for trade as Utah narrows its focus towards building a contender around Donovan Mitchel. The Jazz are also open to discuss trading their No. 30 pick, sources said.” In the 2020-21 season, in 72 games played, Bogdanovic averaged 17 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. On May 1, 2021, in the team’s 106-102 victory over the Toronto Raptors, the six-foot-seven Croatian scored a season-high 34 points, shooting 12-for-22, and he finished his performance with four rebounds and four assists as well. On July 7, 2019, he signed a four-year, $73 million contract with the Jazz.

In 67 games played last season, Ingles averaged 12.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game. The six-foot-eight forward is set to earn $14 million in the 2021-22 season. Plus, among the mentioned players, Royce O’Neale has contributed the least. In 71 games played last season, he averaged seven points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.5 assists. On January 19, 2020, the forward signed a four-year, $36 million extension with the team. He will earn $8.6 million next season. According to The Athletic, in the team’s seventh workout for draft prospects, they viewed Quentin Grimes, David Duke, Matt Mitchell, and a few other players. In the first round, if the team chooses not to draft any of the players they are holding workouts for, the organization will trade the No. 30 pick.

Just for a reminder, retrieved from Spotrac, the 2021-22 NBA luxury tax threshold is $136,606,000. Utah’s active roster cap is $133,284,695, the maximum cap is $112,414,000, and the current cap space is $72,990,215. Furthermore, center Rudy Gobert currently has the highest guaranteed contract on the team. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. Gobert is set to earn $35.3 million in the coming season, whereas Donovan Mitchell will earn $28.1 million. Gobert and Mitchell combined consume 47.6 percent of the team’s salary cap. For the upcoming 2021-22 season, the Jazz have a guaranteed total of $129,719,453. Based on the team’s future outlook, the Jazz will have to make a trade or two in order to retain their star players. This should go without saying.

NBA Analysis Network reported a few days ago that a potential Jazz-Knicks trade target is Bojan Bogdanovic. Greg Patuto proposed the Knicks receiving Bogdanovic, while the Jazz would receive Kevin Knox II, and the Nos. 19 and No. 32 picks of the 2021 NBA Draft. Now, this could still happen at some point during this draft week, but then again, sports bettors and fans alike understand that these news reports could be just rumors. The most intelligent, unforthcoming general managers know not to leave bread crumb trails for the media, especially leading into the offseason. They will do everything necessary to protect their foolproof plans.

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Raptors, Pacers, Timberwolves, Kings, and Cavaliers among teams showing interest in Ben Simmons

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According to Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report, five teams have shown interest in pursuing Ben Simmons from the Philadelphia 76ers. Fischer reported, “Cleveland, Indiana, Minnesota, Sacramento, and Toronto all showed interest in acquiring the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year.” Furthermore, the teams are wanting Simmons to change position from point guard to forward. “Multiple executives from those teams, when contacted by Bleacher Report, mentioned their excitement at incorporating Simmons as a play-making forward—not at the point guard position he’s played in Philadelphia.” The six-foot-eleven guard averaged 14.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 6.9 assists in the 2020-21 NBA season. This might sound fine for a young rookie, but as a five-year player, these aforementioned statistics were career lows.

However, the 25-year-old also earned his third NBA All-Star selection and second All-Defensive first-team selection last season. After a less than mediocre performance in his third postseason of his NBA career, the majority of 76ers’ fans would agree that it’s now time for Simmons to have a change in scenery. With a regular season record of 49-23 (.681), the No. 1 ranked 76ers in the Eastern Conference entered the conference semifinals as favorites over the Atlanta Hawks. Leading into this series, some NBA analysts were predicting Philadelphia to prevail four games to two. The 2016 first overall pick was expected to limit Trae Young in scoring and rally his team from point deficits, but none of this ever manifested.

Pertaining to postseason averages, Simmons had a playoff series-low of 9.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game in the conference semifinals against the Hawks. This lackluster showing proved to be a more significant downfall for the superstar, considering Simmons had only five points, eight rebounds, and 13 assists in Game 7 versus the Hawks. In the 2019-20 season, he averaged 2.1 steals per game, leading all other players in the league. Moreover, Simmons currently ranks sixth in the NBA for active player triple-doubles (32). With a total of 32 career triple-doubles, he ranks 13th on the all-time list, tied with Clippers’ guard Rajon Rondo.

On July 16, 2019, Simmons signed a five-year, $169.65 million contract extension with the 76ers. He is set to earn $30.5 million in the 2021-22 season. Among these teams interested in Simmons, Cavs’ Kevin Love has the fourth largest contract guarantee of $91.4 million. Love is due to earn $31.3 million next season, and the 13-year veteran’s contract consumes 26 percent of the team’s salary cap. He could be traded this offseason. Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns has a contract guarantee of $130.8 million. The 25-year-old Wolves center will earn $31.6 million in the upcoming season.

Plus, Kings’ 2017 first-round pick De’Aaron Fox has a guaranteed contract of $171.1 million. Fox will earn $28.1 million next season. To add to that, Raptors’ Pascal Siakim has a contract guarantee of $131.4 million. Not to mention, reported by Yahoo Sports via trade rumors yesterday, the Golden State Warriors are a potential trade partner for Toronto. The Warriors could make a move on Siakim, clearing up space on the Raptors for Simmons. Per Spotrac, the 2021-22 season cap maximum is $112,414,000. In the coming weeks, one of these said five teams might make a substantial trade offer to the 76ers’ organization that they cannot refuse.

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