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The Western Conference’s Wild Race for Eighth

The race for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference is heating up. Several new pieces will factor into the battle, including some possible movement before the trade deadline. Chad Smith takes a closer look at the teams vying for the eighth seed.

Chad Smith

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The Western Conference has always been wild, but there are some interesting wrinkles that have developed this season. The top seven teams currently in the standings appear to have a firm grip on the postseason, but there is a large group of hungry organizations that are set to make a run for the final playoff spot.

Heading into Saturday night’s games, the Los Angeles Lakers have a four and a half-game lead over Utah and the LA Clippers for the top seed. Denver is five games behind the Lakers while Dallas and Houston are the five and six seeds as the two Texas teams have identical records. The surprise Oklahoma City Thunder remain in the seventh seed, more than five games ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies.

One team has made a move already as the Mavericks were in need of a big man after the devastating loss of their talented center Dwight Powell. They got their man yesterday, as they acquired Willie Cauley-Stein in a deal with the Golden State Warriors. The trade deadline is less than two weeks away and many of these teams will be searching for a deal or two to prepare them for the playoffs.

Looking further down the current standings, there are a handful of teams that still have a legitimate shot at getting the final playoff spot. Some will have to work much harder than others, and the upcoming trade deadline will surely play a significant role in the final outcome. The successful scenario for each team depends on a number of key elements that will need to come to fruition.

Memphis Grizzlies

The young Grizzlies currently own the No. 8 seed after a strong January push. Rookie sensation Ja Morant has shined as the new face of the franchise, with much help from his talented teammates. Jaren Jackson Jr has thrived next to Morant, giving Memphis one of the best young duos in the league. Should the Grizzlies hold on to the final spot, it would provide them with valuable playoff experience as they continue to build their team.

More than just those two, it has been guys like Dillon Brooks and Brandon Clarke that have emerged as solid contributors. The veteran presence of Jae Crowder has been an exceptional addition to this young core, as they have won eight of their last ten games. Jonas Valanciunas has played his part to perfection, a role that rookie head coach Taylor Jenkins crafted to maximize the value of both of his big men.

San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs have some history they just aren’t ready to give up on yet. The playoff streak of 22 consecutive years was in peril early in the season as they struggled mightily. Gregg Popovich is more than capable of fixing any issues in San Antonio – and he seems to have gotten through to this group. While the roster construction may not be perfect, it was just a matter of tweaking a few things to get it right.

The willingness of LaMarcus Aldridge to take more three-pointers has done wonders for this team. In particular, DeMar DeRozan has blossomed into the player we had grown accustomed to seeing. The spacing provided in the midrange area now has opened up driving opportunities for their deep rotation of guards. Simply allowing Lonnie Walker IV to play through his mistakes has gone a long way to getting the Spurs train back on the tracks.

Phoenix Suns

The Suns have been one of the surprise teams this season, which is even more surprising when you consider the fact that Deandre Ayton missed 25 games with his suspension. That void was filled by Aron Baynes, who helped transform their offense from a one-man show in Devin Booker. While he is more than capable of being a shot creator and distributor, getting Booker off the ball more and allowing him to just finish plays has worked wonders.

Ricky Rubio has much to do with that and he has been sensational this year as he is putting up career numbers. The emergence of Kelly Oubre Jr has been a phenomenal thing to watch while both he and Mikal Bridges have become steady contributors. The roster changes have been a big part of their turnaround, but having a capable and knowledgeable head coach like Monty Williams looms large as well.

Portland Trail Blazers

No team has suffered through injuries more this season than the Portland Trail Blazers. The job that Terry Stotts has done is even more impressive when you literally list out all the players they’ve seen go down. From Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins to Rodney Hood and CJ McCollum, Portland has been reaching for the life vest often. Their desperation reached a new level when they moved for Hassan Whiteside and then signed Carmelo Anthony after the season began.

Portland has made those acquisitions work though – with, of course, a heavy dose of Damian Lillard keeping the boat afloat with sensational performances. Lillard’s steady play has enabled them to get through the rocky first half of the season. A Nurkic return and the continued progression of guys like Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr. should give them a decent shot as they are only two and a half games out of the final playoff spot.

New Orleans Pelicans

Zion Williamson’s debut went quite well for the Pelicans on Wednesday. They have lost both tightly-contested games at home, but expectations are rising as they incorporate their prized rookie into the lineup. With him back on the floor, the Pelicans have decided to hold on to their veterans Jrue Holiday and JJ Redick. Lonzo Ball has progressed nicely already and Derrick Favors has found his groove in New Orleans. Kenrich Williams and E’Twaun Moore continue to be two of the most sneaky, underrated players in the league.

Brandon Ingram’s fit with Zion in the fold will be the key to everything. The lengthy forward has been one of the most improved players in the league this year, without a doubt. There are a bunch of teams that the Pelicans must leapfrog in order to make the playoffs, but a first-round matchup with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers would be a dream scenario for the league, and their television partners.

With the trade deadline and All-Star break right around the corner, all the teams lurking nearby a postseason spot need to decide where they stand. Either way, in a few weeks, we’ll start to see more clarity in terms of bankable contenders, sneaky dark horses and lottery-bound losers.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — The Lottery Version

Most of the next six weeks will be spent focusing on the race for the West’s No. 8 seed, but don’t lose track of the annual plummet to the bottom while attention is diverted elsewhere.

Douglas Farmer

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Despite every vague description of the 2020 draft class as weak, despite the NBA flattening the lottery odds a year ago, despite the competitive instincts genuinely within each roster throughout the league, tanking in the final months of the season is inevitable.

It will not be as pervasive as it may be leading into the already-hyped 2021 draft, and it certainly will not be as rampant as in The Process-headlined mid-2010s, but the idea of increasing lottery odds still holds logical merit. With the flattened odds, four subsets exist within the odds:

Nos. 9-14: Odds from 1 percent to 3 percent of landing the top pick.
Nos. 7-8: Odds of 6 percent.
Nos. 4-6: Odds from 9 percent to 12.5 percent.
Nos. 1-3: Odds of 14 percent.

In the run-up to May 19’s lottery, many will remind that both the New Orleans Pelicans and the Memphis Grizzlies lept from those 6-percent slots into the top-two spots in the draft a year ago — but the focus should still be at the absolute bottom of the standings, where the Golden State Warriors may already have locked up one of the 14-percent opportunities.

The Warriors’ 44 losses are five ahead of — or is it behind? — the Detroit Pistons’ 39, which would necessitate quite a winning boost to overcome, even with Stephen Curry returning sometime next month. The better question is, who will spiral to the other two 14-percent chances? Basketball Insiders may be devoting much of the week to the “Stretch Run” as it applies to the league’s leaders, but five other teams will be racing down to only two spots:

Cleveland Cavaliers: 14-40 currently, 2-8 in their last 10.
Atlanta Hawks: 16-41, 4-6 in their last 10.
Minnesota Timberwolves: 16-37, 1-9 in their last 10.
New York Knicks: 17-38, 5-5 in their last 10.
Detroit Pistons: 19-39, 2-8 in their last 10.

The trade deadline provided some clarity in these franchises’ grander plans, most specifically that the Pistons have little-to-no intent of competing in the near future. With Blake Griffin sidelined, Andre Drummond traded and Reggie Jackson bought out, Detroit’s starting lineup now features a pair of names that the more casual fan might struggle to spell — Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and Sekou Doumbouya, for the record.

That three-game lead in the win column should not hold up for long. Consider their next six games: At Portland, at Denver, at Phoenix, at Sacramento, vs. Oklahoma City and vs. Utah. To be blunt, the Pistons will likely lose all six.

If anyone will match Detroit, it may be the Timberwolves, particularly with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns out indefinitely with a wrist injury. Minnesota’s next six games may include plausibly-winnable games at Orlando and against the Dallas Mavericks, but the Timberwolves have already strung together losing streaks of 11 and 13 games this season. The trade deadline may have reinvented most of Minnesota’s roster, but Towns’ absence may spur another notable losing streak.

If any of these teams might separate itself with wins, it would be the Knicks. They started 4-18 under David Fizdale but have gone 13-20 since under interim head coach Mike Miller. That latter winning rate would have New York at 21 or 22 wins currently, if spread across the entire season to date. Continuing at that pace should distance the Knicks from the best lottery odds, albeit just to still plenty desirable chances.

If such a shift occurs in Cleveland under freshly-instated head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, then suddenly this lottery-driven stretch run may include only the Timberwolves, Pistons and Knicks. The Hawks’ moves at the deadline — namely trading for Clint Capela and Dewayne Dedmon — suggest their time pursuing the most ping-pong balls has ended. Their results underscore the value of rising in the lottery no matter the draft; landing Trae Young may be best remembered, but the less-heralded drafting of De’Andre Hunter is increasingly paying off.

The 2020 version of notable tanking is more a selective stagger, one likely to apply to only three franchises — currently squabbling over a mere 1.5 percent in lottery odds. In any other avenue of life, that would hardly be enough to fret over, but when it may be the difference in landing Anthony Edwards, James Wiseman or LaMelo Ball, that 1.5 percent still means a great deal to these franchises.

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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.

Ben Nadeau

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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.

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NBA Daily: Collin Sexton’s First All-Star Weekend A Success

Spencer Davies looks back at Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton’s first-time experience at NBA All-Star weekend in Chicago.

Spencer Davies

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It was early Friday afternoon at the Wintrust Arena in Chicago, the stage was set to kick off a laid-back weekend of celebration on NBA All-Star Weekend and commend the hard work of the brightest young talents, both national and international, the league had to offer.

The events of the 72-hour spectacle are meant to be enjoyed, connecting with others and soaking in the experience as a reward rather than being a full-on competition. Added to the U.S. Team roster as a replacement for injured Miami HEAT rookie Tyler Herro, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton did just that. Between a multitude of media appearances in the bright lights with cameras all around, the 21-year-old upstart took advantage of the opportunities to expose his personality to a national audience.

But amidst the fun, Sexton still went the extra mile as he always does. Phil Handy, a former Cavaliers assistant who worked famously with Kyrie Irving and the man that conducted Sexton’s pre-draft workout with Cleveland, was the head coach of the U.S. Team. So the one they call Young Bull decided to take full advantage with a post-practice workout when the floor cleared.

“[He’s worked with] great guards, yeah. He’s a great guy,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “He just told me to continue to get better, continue to work, continue to strive to be great. He talked to me a little bit about Kobe [Bryant] and his time with him, so I just got a good takeaway from him.”

Additional work at a practice to improve his game and prepare for an exhibition contest during a time that was meant for fun? It’s par for the course in his world. Just weeks prior following the Cavaliers’ loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on the road, a team source revealed to Basketball Insiders that Sexton went to Cleveland’s practice facility after landing in Northeast Ohio in the early morning hours to hone his craft.

“Dude’s motor doesn’t stop,” the source said.

“Oh naw, I work hard. When I feel like…if I’m on the court, I’mma do whatever I’ve gotta do. No days off, whatever,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders of his never-ending drive. “If it’s taking care of my body or just stretching or lifting, it’s not always about shooting and stuff like that. You’ve just gotta do the little things and that’s going to help you in the future.”

Though Sexton wasn’t used to the kind of attention he was receiving in the Windy City, he was determined to prove that he belongs. Usually taking a business-like approach to downplay things of this nature, he admitted how amazing it felt to achieve the milestone and be a part of the most popular three-day stretch the NBA has to offer.

“I feel like all my hard work, it paid off. So I’m glad to be here, especially with these group of guys, really good group. It’s an honor,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders that Friday morning.

Among star-studded sophomore names such as Luka Doncic and Trae Young, as well as human-highlight-reel rookies like Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, a motivated Sexton made his mark on the floor.

In 20 minutes of action, he poured in 21 points, nabbed five rebounds and dished out three assists. He shot 9-for-14 from the field, including three triples on six tries. And he even had a reverse jam on a bounce pass to himself, though he joked that it was “kinda weak.”

“At first, I was just chillin’ out there, wasn’t playing too hard. Then, you know, I can turn it on pretty quick,” Sexton said.

“Honestly, I just go out there and just play my game. Honestly, no matter who I’m put in the room with, I’mma do what I do,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “It’s exciting just because of like all the attention they bring, but me, being myself . . . I’m a dog too, so I’mma go out there and show everybody that I can represent as well.”

Sexton was the 20th Cavalier in franchise history to represent the team in the Rising Stars game since its inception in 1994. With a grin on his face naming those wine-and-golders who came before him, he was thinking ahead about the teammates that could now follow his lead.

Basketball Insiders saw a side of Sexton that hasn’t been seen much in Cleveland. He started a long media tour Thursday with a Yahoo-sponsored pop-a-shot contest followed it up with an NBA TV sitdown interview alongside Dennis Scott. While the next day was entirely centered on Rising Stars, he continued Saturday with an appearance for Metro By T-Mobile during a media-player role reversal contest and finished off at a Mountain Dew barbershop sit down with the legendary Scottie Pippen and other notorious players from the league.

Through all of the losing, through all of the tumultuous nature of his one-and-a-half seasons with the Cavaliers — who are hiring their fourth coach since the 2018 NBA Draft — Sexton is not going to change his approach. He’s not going to change who he is. He’s not going to veer into a different path because of another shift in direction.

“It’s a great experience for me just to take my bumps and bruises, to go out there and pretty much just play hard each and every night, and that’s what I’mma do,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “It’s tough losing because no one wants to lose. I feel like we’re moving in the right directions and we’ll get better and start winning.”

Whether people want to believe it or not, what he’s doing is working just fine.

All-Star Weekend proved it.

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