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The Five Most Intriguing Second Half Matchups in 2020-21

Drew Maresca breaks down the second-half of the 2020-21 NBA schedule, identifying the five most intriguing matchups.

Drew Maresca

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Needless to say, 2020 forced us all to accept uncertainty in all facets of our lives – and that includes sports. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the possibility of missed games, the NBA did not announce a complete schedule entering the 2020-21 season.

But the NBA – as well as most of the sports world – continues to forge ahead through the pandemic, hosting fans and even holding an abbreviated All-Star Weekend. More to the point, the NBA is now comfortable enough with its product through the first two or so months to announce its schedule for the rest of the way.

There are a number of interesting takeaways from a delayed schedule release. The biggest of all, perhaps, is that the Los Angeles Lakers have a relatively easy schedule the rest of the way, which should aid them as Anthony Davis works his way back from an Achilles injury. The New York Knicks, who haven’t qualified for the postseason since 2013, will end their season on a hellacious west coast trip, might it derail their playoff hopes? Further, we found out that fans are the real winners, with 44 nationally televised games between Mar. 14 and May 10, airing on ABC, ESPN and TNT.

But good regular season games are of the highest importance. As much as the playoffs generate most of the league’s intrigue, legends are built in the regular season, too. The late, great Kobe Bryant scored 81 points on a January night in the regular season. He also scored 60 in his career-finale during the final game of the 2015-16 regular season. Michael Jordan scored 55-points in his return to Madison Square Garden, following a nearly two-year long hiatus, in March – also in the regular season.

With that in mind, let’s examine the five most intriguing matchups of the second half of this year’s regular season.

5. Brooklyn Nets at New York Knicks, Mar. 15

This is a New York thing. Pride is on the line. The Nets have only been New York City residents for nine years – still, they’ve had more success in their short time within the boroughs than their New York neighbors. Worse, now the Nets look poised to compete for a championship with James Harden recently joining Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in Brooklyn. All that comes after convincing Durant and Irving to join the Nets instead of relocating to Manhattan.

But the Knicks appear to be on the upswing themselves, currently in possession of the sixth-best record in the East. That culminates in a hostile matchup between division rivals for city-wide bragging rights. Let’s throw in, 2,000 or so basketball-starved fans in the World’s Most Famous Arena, and you have a recipe for drama.

4. Denver Nuggets at Utah Jazz, May 7

Simply put, Jazz/Nuggets games are everything that’s good with basketball. It involves two very good teams, who also happen to be division rivals, and great individual matchups. One team features the best defensive center in the NBA. The other has, possibly, the most unique offensive center in the history of the game. They both feature great shooting guards – one is more of a freak athlete, while the other is more of a technical assassin.  They both boast solid role players, but at different positions. Utah possesses the third-best offensive rating in the league, while Denver sports the fifth-best. They are also the third- and fifth-best three-point shooting teams in the league, too. Adding to the matter, they put on possibly the best series in the 2020 NBA playoffs from inside the bubble.

Basically, the more Jazz versus Nuggets games the better.

3. Brooklyn Nets at Utah Jazz, Mar. 24

This one is for the purists. It features the ultimate clash of styles, with the league’s best offense – Brooklyn boasts an offensive rating of 119 – bumping heads with the second-best defense in Utah. Interestingly, the Nets do play the Lakers, who currently own the league’s best defense, in early April, but with Davis’ return up-in-the-air, it’s hard to place too much significance on that matchup.

And the Nets/Jazz game is probably more interesting to basketball fans, anyway. There are intriguing individual matchups like Mike Conley/Kyrie Irving and Donovan Mitchell/James Harden to watch. There’s also the issue of the Jazz dealing with Durant, should he return in time, and the Nets’ subpar bigs against the league’s best defensive center. Plus, the idea that the Jazz, hailing from a significantly smaller media market, are less established and unknown – a complete fallacy, of course – will play into the intrigue around them down the stretch.

If that weren’t enough, the Nets are one of the league’s hottest teams, having won eight of their last 10 games. And the Jazz are even hotter, boasting the league’s best record and winning nine of their last 10. The two teams have played only once this season, an early January affair that resulted in a 34-point Brooklyn win, so there’s still lots of feeling out to be done. Still, this one has NBA Finals preview written all over it.

2. Los Angeles Lakers at New York Knicks, Apr. 12

Upon first glance, it makes little sense to include this matchup with these other high-stakes games. But let’s remember, LeBron James in Madison Square Garden is must-see TV. He dropped 50 points at MSG in 2008, 52 in 2009 and he secured a 32-point triple double in 2010. While James is extremely likely to return next season (and possibly beyond) in an attempt to unseat Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time scoring leader, he is currently 36. Any minor tweak can have long lasting implications. So while James still has all of his powers, we can probably agree that LeBron at MSG is an event that supersedes the regular season.

1. Los Angeles Lakers at Los Angeles Clippers, May 6th

Lakers/Clippers has been the rivalry in the NBA since the start of the 2019-20 season, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone to see it on this list. The rivalry might seem a little watered down due to the fact that they’ll play each other again before May – but this one will be far more important for two reasons. First, while Davis may not return before their Apr. 4 matchup and, if he does, he’s likely to be on a minutes restrictions. Beyond that, it’s entirely unlikely that he doesn’t return prior to this one so seeding – and possibly even the division crown – could be on the line. Granted, in a Los Angeles-Los Angeles, Western Conference Finals, seeding makes no less difference than usual, but it could make all the difference in literally every other playoff scenario. This game is prime time stuff. Think Brooklyn versus New York with actual, real-time ramifications.

The NBA schedule is usually released before the season without much fanfare. But the COVID-19 pandemic has changed things, and now even the release of the second-half of the season’s schedule is an event. And while it might seem forced to some, this write says the more basketball activities – and ultimately games – the better.

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NBA Daily: Is Mitchell Robinson’s Injury a Blessing in Disguise?

Drew Maresca explores what Mitchell Robinson’s injury means to the New York Knicks — this season and beyond.

Drew Maresca

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The New York Knicks are right in the middle of a playoff push. They are currently in the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference and they appear to be in good shape to at least qualify for the play-in tournament, 6.5 games ahead of the 11th seeded Toronto Raptors.

The Knicks have remained in the playoff picture despite starting center, Mitchell Robinson, missing 23 of the team’s 55 games.

Most recently, Robinson exited a March 27 contest against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first quarter with a broken foot. Including the March 27 game against Milwaukee, New York has won five of their last 10 games without Robinson.

As recently as last season, Robinson was viewed as the team’s answer at center – and, along with RJ Barrett, the team’s only long-term building blocks. This take has aged badly given the progress made by Julius Randle and the success had by rookie Immanuel Quickley (and to a lesser degree, Obi Toppin.)

But in celebrating the team’s present, it’s fair to question their future – does New York’s success without Robinson mean he’s expendable?

The 2020-21 season has been challenging for Robinson, who already missed 15 games earlier this year with a broken right hand. Somewhat miraculously, the Knicks have continued their strong play without Robinson In total, New York is 13-11 without Robinson and just 15-16 with him.

The timing of the injury is apropos.

The Knicks and Robinson were expected to engage in contract discussions this offseason. They still have some time to figure out a path forward, but the injury makes an otherwise straightforward contract negotiation trickier. The Knicks possess a team option for Robinson in 2021-22 for $1.8 million, which is significantly below market value for a player of Robinson’s stature.

Robinson is averaging 8.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and (a career-low) 1.5 blocks per game. He’s also averaging a career-high 27.5 minutes per game, due — in part — to his ability to avoid fouls. Robinson averaged 3.2 fouls per game last season, fouling out of seven games. He’s down to 2.8 personal fouls per game this year and hasn’t fouled out of a single contest.

A long-term agreement appeared likely between the Knicks and Robinson prior to his (presumably) season-ending foot injury. Similarly skilled, albeit more polished, players have signed significant deals in the recent past. Clint Capella signed a 5 year/$90 million deal in 2018, which is higher than what most expected Robinson to fetch — but it probably would have been referenced in negotiations.

Following the injury, a smaller deal is likely — if at all. The Knicks will probably still pick up Robinson’s option, but they could either trade him or let him play out next season without an extension. And while the Knicks must decide if they’d like to prioritize Robinson, Robinson must decide how much of a discount, if any, he’s willing to accept from New York (or anyone.) Robinson just signed with his sixth NBA agent (Thad Foucher of the Wasserman Group) and he’s expected to chase some of the money he missed out on by skipping the 2018 NBA Draft Combine and falling into the second round.

But Robinson shouldn’t push too hard in negotiations as the Knicks can just as easily turn to someone on their current roster as his replacement — and it would cost them far less in guaranteed money.

Enter Nerlens Noel. Noel has been a pleasant surprise for president Leon Rose and Knicks’ fans alike. He’s averaging 5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game on the season; but he’s come off the bench for much of it, receiving just 23.1 minutes per game.

But even in limited time, Noel has had a major impact on the team’s defensive. He’s first in the NBA in defensive plus-minus (3.3), second in the percentage of the team’s blocked two-point field goal attempts (8.9%) and third in defensive win share (2.7).

And he’s been even better in Robinson’s absence. In his last 10 games, Noel is averaging 5.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.7 blocks in 26.1 minutes per game.

Noel signed in New York for just one year/$5 million this past offseason. While that is cheap relative to other starting-caliber centers, he’s not doing anything he hasn’t done in the past. Noel is averaging fewer points, assists and steals per game while securing more blocks and essentially the same number of rebounds. So, if teams knew what Noel could do entering 2020-21, why would they pay him more next season for the same output? Unfortunately, free agency is a fickle beast and there’s no rhyme or reason as to why teams weren’t interested in like Noel last year — but the Knicks will likely have the upper hand in negotiations.

Ultimately, the Knicks’ desire to keep Noel shouldn’t influence their preference to re-sign Robinson. Remember, Robinson set the single-season record for field goal percentage last season (74.2%) and he averages greater than two blockers per game over his career. He’s an elite lob target, and he closes out on shooters better than just about anyone in the league.

Contract negotiations are a zero-sum game in which one party wins at the expense of the other. Robinson and the Knicks should enter into negotiations delicately. Robinson probably feels owed given his cumulative salary relative to his past performance, and the Knicks were probably hoping for a more concrete body of work, leading to more certainty around an offer.

The reality is that Robinson has struggled with injuries — this year and in previous seasons — and his game hasn’t developed significantly since his rookie season. He is also a very unique talent who should get even better with more time under coach Thibodeau.

So for the best possible outcome, all parties must concede.

The Knicks are best with both Robinson and Noel. As much as Robinson’s injury will hinder how far New York can go this season, it can be key in their future. If Robinson and Noel are amenable to the idea of returning at a slight discount, it can ensure their defensive excellence continues — and if it’s at the right number(s), it should allow for considerable financial flexibility to continue maneuvering.

And the Knicks haven’t been savvy maneuverers in a long time.

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NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – April 16

With under 20 games to go in the regular season, the Rookie of the Year race is becoming clearer. Tristan Tucker breaks down the ladder’s changes over the past two weeks.

Tristan Tucker

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With under 20 games to go in the NBA season, each award’s frontrunners are coming into clearer focus. A two-man race is forming at the top of the rookie ladder, with Anthony Edwards and Tyrese Haliburton leading the charge. Without further ado, let’s take a look at how the rookie race is shaking out mid-way through April.

1. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves (Previous: 2)

Edwards is scorching hot and he’s bumped his scoring up to 18.1 points per game on the season. Since Basketball Insiders’ last rookie ladder, Edwards eliminated all concerns of a jump shot, something that’s coming more consistently to him.

In that period of time, Edwards is averaging 23.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.6 steals. The talented wing out of Georgia is shooting 36.2 percent from three and 44.4 percent overall, much improved from earlier in the season.

There are still some concerns, but Edwards has clearly made the Timberwolves a more competitive team as of late. With D’Angelo Russell back from injury, the Wolves will finally get a chance to see their young corps in action.

2. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings (Previous: 1)

After Sacramento won seven of eight games, the team has dropped eight in a row and Haliburton moved back to the bench. During this stretch, Haliburton’s ultimately struggled with accuracy, though it hasn’t impacted his season averages.

For Haliburton, team success and overall impact on the floor is his strongest case for the Rookie of the Year award. However, now that the Wolves are much more competitive and the Kings are on the decline, Edwards is the frontrunner.

3. Saddiq Bey, Detroit Pistons (Previous: 5)

With Ball and James Wiseman sidelined, Bey seems like a good bet to be the third in line for consideration for Rookie of the Year. Bey is rising up the historical ranks for rookie three-point shooters. Bey’s 38.6 percent clip from deep on over six attempts per game would rank as the best for a rookie ever.

In the last two weeks, Bey’s averages have jumped to 15.6 points, 3 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game. Meanwhile, his shooting is up to 47.5 percent from the floor and 42 percent from deep on even more attempts.

4. Jae’Sean Tate, Houston Rockets (Previous: 3)

In a season without many consistencies, Tate’s been a diamond in the rough. Tate can do a little bit of everything, boasting good hands, high efficiency, somewhat of a deep shot and a passing vision. In the last two weeks, Tate is averaging 12.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.5 steals per game while playing huge minutes.

If Houston holds onto its first-round pick this year, it’ll have an exciting young group to look forward to. Christian Wood and Kevin Porter Jr. have also shined this year, while fellow rookie Kenyon Martin Jr. looks like a steady professional already.

5. Chuma Okeke, Orlando Magic (Previous: Not Ranked)

Okeke makes his debut on the rookie ladder, cracking the top five. Originally drafted in the 2019 draft, Okeke sat out for the year and didn’t sign his rookie contract until the 2020 offseason. Following Orlando’s firesale at the trade deadline, Okeke became a full-time starter and has shined.

As a full-time starter, Okeke is averaging 12.7 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.1 steals and 1 block per game. While the Magic is spiraling, Okeke’s been a bright spot for a team looking for franchise cornerstones.

6. Desmond Bane, Memphis Grizzlies (Previous: NR)

Bane’s been a long-range sniper all season long but he’s upped the ante in recent weeks. Since the last ladder, Bane is shooting a whopping 45.9 percent from deep on just under five tries per game.

Bane fell all the way to the last pick of the first round in the 2020 NBA Draft, giving the Grizzlies an extremely experienced rookie for the second year in a row, joining Brandon Clarke in that regard. On the year, Bane is averaging 9.6 points and 3.1 rebounds in 22.4 minutes per game.

Honorable Mention: Malachi Flynn (Previous: NR)

In the last few weeks, while Kyle Lowry heals, Flynn has stepped in nicely. During the last two weeks, Flynn is averaging 14.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 2 steals per game. Furthermore, the 22-year-old is shooting 45.2 percent from deep on six attempts per game in that span.

Flynn’s development is extremely underrated, especially if Lowry departs in the offseason. If Flynn’s per-game numbers can be consistent, the league will be on notice.

LaMelo Ball’s injury is unfortunate for several reasons, but one of them is the fact that fans won’t get to see the fiery Rookie of the Year race near the top that could’ve been. However, fans can rest assured knowing that the NBA is in good hands. It’s especially reassuring to see so many great rookies emerge in a class that many presumed to be weaker than most.

Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders to see how the race pans out and to see who is eventually crowned the rookie champ.

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NBA Daily: Can Anyone Challenge the East’s Top Teams?

The Eastern Conference Finals will likely have two of the top three teams represented. While the rest of the teams in the East battle amongst themselves, do any of them have a shot to knock off Brooklyn, Philadelphia, or Milwaukee in the playoffs?

Chad Smith

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The Western Conference has been dominating the league once again, in terms of quality teams from top to bottom. The 13th worst team in the West would be a playoff team in the Eastern Conference. Though their depth is lacking, the East still has a few teams that are championship contenders this season.

The Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks all have a legitimate chance of reaching the NBA Finals this summer. It is championship-or-bust for these franchises who have emptied their wallets in order to pursue the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Each of these teams has at least two star players and another All-Star caliber player to help them reach their ultimate goal. Each one of these teams has a legitimate MVP candidate. In Brooklyn’s case, they just might have the greatest offensive three-headed monster the league has ever seen.

Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo are what separates these three teams from the rest of the conference.

This season there is plenty of parity among the remaining teams in the East. The standings change every night as these teams battle with nearly identical records. It would be a shocking surprise to not see one of Brooklyn, Philly or Milwaukee make it to the NBA Finals.

Odds are that two of these three teams will meet in the Conference Finals, but is there another team lurking that could upset the apple cart? Do any of these teams in the second-tier have enough talent and firepower to upset one of the East’s elite? Here are four teams that could play spoiler.

Miami HEAT

After reaching the NBA Finals last season in the bubble down in Orlando, the HEAT have definitely cooled off this year. They had a slow start at the beginning of the season, then had a long pause as health and safety protocols wreaked havoc on their roster. Not having Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic available really hurt them, but the tide could be turning.

Butler himself has been on a tear since returning to the court — and his teammates have followed his lead. Bam Adebayo has quietly had another outstanding year and they finally got their man Victor Oladipo before the trade deadline passed. Unfortunately, his recent injury put a serious damper on their hopes of getting back to the Finals.

Miami needs Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson to play more consistently, especially with Oladipo out. Veterans Andre Iguodala and Trevor Ariza should help in the postseason as they incorporate another perimeter shooter in Nemanja Bjelica. They have the star power and the experience needed to make another run, but the odds are stacked against them.

Atlanta Hawks

After a dismal start to the season, the Hawks appear to have figured out their identity. Much like the situation in Boston, this team was tasked with trying to build chemistry during a pandemic without essentially any practice. That is a difficult proposition and something that was going to take time. They also still needed to develop their young guys like Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter and Onyeka Okongwu.

After turning things over to Nate McMillan, he has been able to coach up this young squad, even without some of their top talent. Every player on the team has missed a chunk of time this year and they have had to seriously rely on their depth to get them through most of the regular season. Having won 15 of their last 20 games, they now find themselves in a position to have home-court advantage when the playoffs begin.

The vision that Travis Schlenk had in the offseason is finally becoming clear. The incredible play of guys like Clint Capela, Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic and even Solomon Hill has been vital to their success. They will still lean on Trae Young and John Collins for their offense but the talented pieces around them are what will make this team tough to beat in a seven-game series.

Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets have been one of the pleasant surprises this season, even after the acquisition of All-Star forward Gordon Hayward. Charlotte is the true definition of a team, as they have multiple guys that have stepped up and played well in spots throughout the season. PJ Washington, Malik Monk, Miles Bridges, Bismack Biyombo, Jalen McDaniels and the Martin twins of Cody and Caleb have all contributed to their success.

The play of LaMelo Ball had him sitting at the top of the rookie class before he suffered his broken wrist. His phenomenal first season may be over, but the organization is holding out hope that he may be able to return in the playoffs should Charlotte earn a spot in the postseason. Hayward is also back on the shelf as he continues to deal with a sprained foot. Charlotte has been able to stay afloat during their absences, which is a huge credit to James Borrego.

One more major difference-maker for the Hornets this season has been Terry Rozier. The electric guard is one of the top 40 scorers in the league this season and has been one of the best clutch performers as well. He is shooting a career-best 41 percent from behind the arc and 46 percent overall from the floor. They can be a dark horse come playoff time, but they will need their two best players healthy in order to have any chance.

Boston Celtics

It has been a very strange season for the Celtics, who entered the year with high expectations. They have been the greatest mystery this season and a puzzle that Brad Stevens is still trying to put together. Jaylen Brown has taken his game to another level and Jayson Tatum has had his moments as well. Both have cooled off since the All-Star break and Kemba Walker has been hot and cold from game to game.

Marcus Smart missed a lot of time and they brought in Evan Fournier at the trade deadline but he has yet to fit in like many thought he would. Chemistry could be the issue, but no one has really been able to put their finger on their kryptonite. The good news is that Tatum appears to finally be returning to health after his battle with COVID.

The center position has been a revolving door for this team all season, with Tristan Thompson, Daniel Theis, Robert Williams, Tacko Fall, Moritz Wagner and Luke Kornet all trying to fill the void left by Enes Kanter. They could have had the league’s leading shot-blocker Myles Turner, but Danny Ainge let Hayward walk for nothing instead.

On paper, this team is oozing with talent and should be much better than their record indicates. They may finally be figuring things out, having won six of their last seven games, including four straight. If their issues are truly fixed and if they can stay healthy, they will be a team that nobody wants to face in the playoffs.

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