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Travel Fears Shouldn’t Dissuade NBA From Reformatting Playoffs

If travel concerns are your reason for not supporting reformatting the NBA Playoffs, your argument is flawed.

Moke Hamilton

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One of the major takeaways from the NBA’s 2017-18 regular season—aside from the fact that Ben Simmons is really, really good—is that the Denver Nuggets will probably be a strong advocate for playoff reform.

By the skin of their teeth, the Nuggets missed out on qualifying for the playoffs. By losing to the Minnesota Timberwolves on the final night of the regular season, the 46-36 Nuggets now have a date with the draft lottery, although they would have much rather have had a date with the Houston Rockets.

The Nuggets now become the poster child for the renewed advocating of playoff reform. Denver, you see, was eliminated from the playoffs despite having a better record than three Eastern Conference teams that qualified—the Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards.

The Heat and Bucks each finished the season at 44-38, while the Wizards were 43-39.

With the regular season over and the playoffs set to begin, the first round matchups have now been set.

If we’re lucky, though, this may be one of the final few times that we see the traditional playoff format in action.

During All-Star Weekend, Commissioner Adam Silver confirmed that the league was discussing playoff reform. Because of the relative imbalance of talent in the Eastern and Western Conference, the cries for a modified playoff system that would simply take the 16 best teams in the league have only grown louder over the years.

The two obvious issues with the ’Best 16 In’ approach is the travel concerns and the imbalanced schedule. Teams such as the Trail Blazers, Heat and Celtics could find themselves in the ‘nightmarish’ scenario of having to play a team that’s thousands of miles away. Particularly with the 2-2-1-1-1 format, the toll of traveling between Boston and Portland, for example, would probably catch up to a team.

In other words, the winner of a Game 7 between the Celtics and Blazers in the first round would probably be at a competitive disadvantage in the second. At least, that’s the prevailing sentiment.

While the concern is valid, it’s one that could only be addressed and resolved by doing a 2-3-2 format throughout the playoffs, or somehow figuring out a way to reduce the frequency of travel—not easy.

The other major issue—and it’s one that’s easier to fix—is the fact that teams only play 30 out of conference games. To make the system fair, each team would have to play at least 40.

Still, for want of allowing two teams from the same conference to play in the NBA Finals, the league is mulling its option.

I say: it’s about time.

To somewhat address the scheduling imbalance and the want to preserve the Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference format, the league revealed that they are also considering a ‘Modified Best 16 In’ playoff system in which the top eight teams from each conference would qualify for the playoffs and then be re-seeded based on how they fared in the regular season. The concept would more or less mimic what was done for the All-Star game, whereby All-Stars were chosen based on their conference and then redistributed once selected.

Although the Modified Best 16 In system wouldn’t necessarily get a team like the Nuggets into the playoffs, it would help preserve the distribution of TV markets, something that’s important to the league. A world in which 10 of the 16 playoff teams are from one conference, after all, isn’t ideal.

Again, this approach would also allow for two teams in the same conference to compete in the NBA Finals—something that’s never been possible.

With all of that said, let’s take a look at what this season’s first round of the NBA Playoffs would look like if the league adopted either the Best 16 In or Modified Best 16 In format and compare it with what we’re getting.

Here’s what’s actually going to happen this season…

In Western Conference Playoffs…

(1) Houston Rockets vs. (8) Minnesota Timberwolves

(4) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (5) Utah Jazz

(3) Portland Trail Blazers vs. (4) New Orleans Pelicans

(2) Golden State Warriors vs. (7) San Antonio Spurs

In the Eastern Conference Playoffs…

(1) Toronto Raptors vs. (8) Washington Wizards

(4) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (5) Indiana Pacers

(3) Philadelphia 76ers vs. (6) Miami HEAT

(2) Boston Celtics vs. (7) Milwaukee Bucks

Now, compare it to what would happen in with the Best 16 In playoff format, where five of the matchups would feature an Eastern Conference team battling a Western Conference team…

Best 16 In Playoff Format…

(1) Houston Rockets vs. (16) Milwaukee Bucks

(8) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (9) Utah Jazz

(5) Philadelphia 76ers vs. (12) San Antonio Spurs

(4) Boston Celtics vs. (13) Minnesota Timberwolves

(6) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (11) New Orlean Pelicans

(3) Golden State Warriors vs. (14) Denver Nuggets

(7) Portland Trail Blazers vs. (10) Indiana Pacers

(2) Toronto Raptors vs. (15) Miami Heat

For the most part, when people think about intercostal playoff battles, Los Angeles and Boston is usually considered to be the worst case scenario. The truth is, though, that Portland to Miami is the furthest possible distance between NBA cities. That route is the only one that features teams separated by over 3,200 miles. Los Angeles to Boston is just over 2,950.

Interestingly, Portland to New Orleans is over 2,500 miles, and Portland to any of the NBA’s three Texas cities is over 2,000 miles. In other words, Portland can, and in this year’s playoffs, actually will face a daunting travel schedule. They will actually play the Pelicans.

Game 1 is on Saturday.

* * * * * *

Generally speaking, Eastern Conference cities are in closer proximity than Western. If you started out in Boston, you’d only need to travel 500 miles to pass through New York and Philadelphia on the way to Washington, D.C.

Quite similarly, the furthest distance between two Eastern Conference cities is less than 1,500 miles—that’s about the distance from Miami to either Boston or Toronto. 

The point here is that one could actually (and quite easily) make the argument that the playoffs would actually become more fair from a travel standpoint if Eastern Conference teams were subjected to the possibility of having the same daunting travel demands as as their Western Conference counterparts.

If, for example, the Knicks and Sixers played a playoff series, either team could opt to sleep in their own beds for the entire series.

By opening things up, Eastern teams would probably have to travel further distances more often, but in the majority of instances, their travel probably wouldn’t be any worse than what Western Conference teams already have to endure.

Of the five inter-conference playoff matchups listed above, Houston to Milwaukee (1,151 miles), Philadelphia to San Antonio (1,742 miles), Boston to Minneapolis (1,391 miles), Portland to Indianapolis (2,264 miles) and Cleveland to New Orleans (1,055) are all less miles than the distance between Portland and New Orleans. And that series is actually going to happen.

Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Phoenix could also find themselves in unenviable situations requiring them to cover a lot of miles.

Sure, the Eastern Conference teams might, too, but the probability is much less and could only be addressed by mixing the playoffs.

If the league opted for the Modified Best 16 In format, where it still chose eight teams from each conference (rather than the top 16 overall) it’s a very consistent story.

The result would be a minor shuffling of the teams at the bottom of the standings. The Nuggets would fall out, the Heat and Bucks would each move up one spot and the Wizards would get in as 16th.

As a result, the Rockets would play the Wizards instead of the Bucks, the Warriors would play the Heat instead of the Nuggets and the Raptors would play the Jazz instead of the Heat.

Houston would have to travel 1,408 miles to get to D.C. and the Raptors would have to travel 1,900 miles to get to Salt Lake City.

Neither of those distances is further than what the Blazers will have to travel to get to New Orleans, but they also aren’t much further than how far Western Conference teams normally have to travel, anyway.

The Warriors, in this instance, are an exception. Under this scenario, they would have to travel 3,100 miles to Miami. Being on the West coast, any matchup featuring an Atlantic or Southeast Division team, for the Warriors, would be similarly painful. But do recall that they beat the Pelicans in the first round of the 2015 NBA Playoffs en route to winning the championship. And Miami isn’t that much further from Oakland than New Orleans.

Look, there are pros and cons to everything, and no solution is going to please everybody—not all the time, at least.

But if one of the arguments against reformatting the NBA playoffs is a concern about the potential of increasing the frequency of cross country travel, it might not actually be as big of a deal as many of us believe. Western Conference teams already have to face more daunting travel than their Eastern Conference counterparts, and at least by mixing the playoffs, the league would subject all teams to the same opportunity of brutality.

It might not be ideal, but it probably is fair. Or, at the very least, more fair.

Plus, at the end of the day, who wants to see an anticlimactic NBA Finals?

Ensuring that the two best teams get to compete for the championship is the pro that should probably outweigh the minor cons.

The only way to ensure that is to make the change that’s been a long time coming.

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NBA

Where Can Dallas Go From Here?

The Dallas Mavericks have had a bad season, what can they do to turn it around?

Zach Dupont

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The Dallas Mavericks struck gold in 2018 when they secured Slovenian superstar Luka Doncic in the NBA Draft.

Fast forward to 2021 and Doncic has already emerged as one of the best players in the NBA and a borderline perennial MVP candidate. This season, Doncic is averaging 28.5 points, 9.0 assists and 8.4 rebounds per game and was just named as a starter in the All-Star Game for the second time in a row. But Doncic’s success isn’t leading the Mavericks to wins as Dallas holds a mediocre 17-16 record and currently sits 9th in the Western Conference.

Outside of Doncic, the Mavericks lack the scoring needed to push them over the top. Kristaps Porzingis is Dallas’ second-leading scorer, averaging 20.5 points per game, but he has had trouble staying healthy, playing in only 17 games. Porzingis hasn’t been shooting the ball consistently either, shooting only 35 percent from three-point range so far.

Dallas, as a team, needs help with their outside shooting. The Mavericks are 23rd in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage, hitting 35.3 percent of their outside shots on the season. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Dallas shoots the ninth most three-pointer per game at 37.1 three-point attempts – wilder, ranking ninth in three-pointers attempted rate, 42.7 percent of Dallas’ shots come from beyond the arc.

The defense has also been a thorn in the Mavericks’ side this year. At one point, Porzingis was one of the more dynamic shot blockers and interior defenders in the league, but this season he has taken a step back. Dallas rocks the fifth-worst defensive rating in the NBA of 114.4, only beating out the Washington Wizards, New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trailblazers and Sacramento Kings. Having the fifth-worst defense isn’t good enough if the Mavericks are serious about competing this year.

One player that might help Dallas in both areas is a former player, current Sacramento Kings’ wing Harrison Barnes. Barnes has had a very productive season in Sacramento, averaging 16.1 points per game on 48.9 field goal percentage and 40 percent from three. At 6-foot-8 and 225 lbs, Barnes has the size to defend elite wing players, often doing a modest job for a very bad defensive. Barnes also is capable of operating as a secondary ball-handler with some limited playmaking abilities that could help diversify the Mavericks’ offense.   

Another player rumored to be on the market is Charlotte Hornets guard Terry Rozier. The Hornets have a log jam at the guard position between Rozier, LaMelo Ball and Devonte’ Graham, and Rozier could be a nice fit alongside Doncic in the backcourt. Rozier would immediately improve the Mavericks’ three-point shooting as Scary Terry is knocking down 44.5 percent of his deep hoists. Another benefit of bringing in Rozier is his ability to act as a primary ball-handler, alongside Doncic that would take the pressure off to create a basket every time down the floor. Rozier’s defense does leave a lot to be desired, but he works hard on that end and averages 1.3 steals per game.

Further, two big men known to be on the trade block are Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins and Cleveland Cavaliers center Andre Drummond. In his fourth season, Collins has taken another step forward on both ends of the court, averaging 17.4 points on an ultra-efficient 62.2 true shooting percentage. Collins has also improved as a defender since he first entered the league and is now making a much more positive impact on defense.

This improvement is evident by his defensive rating of 111.7, more than two whole points lower than the Hawks’ team defensive rating of 113.8, per NBA.com. Collins does have some drawbacks though, chief among them is that he’ll hit restricted free agency this offseason in time for a massive payday.

Drummond has sat out since the Cavaliers started looking for a partner, and Dallas presents an exciting option for the 27-year-old center. Drummond is a monster on the glass, averaging 13.5 rebounds per game this season – a number that is actually the lowest he’s put up since 2014-15. For Drummond to fit on this team and help them win games, he’d have to cut back his scoring attempts dramatically.

Drummond’s 17.5 points per game look nice, but when paired with a 50 percent true shooting, it’s much less appealing. However, the potential rim protection and rebounding may be worth the risk of his lackluster offensive numbers – best of all, the asking price should be low too.

A roadblock to acquiring anyone for Dallas is their lack of assets to give back in a trade. The Mavericks don’t own their 2021 or 2023 first-round draft picks, which leaves them only able to trade a first-round pick at the earliest for 2025. Dallas isn’t loaded with prospects to ship away either. Any of the 2020 draft picks would provide some value, but not enough to get a deal done for a significant difference-maker.

Dallas has their generational talent, but they need to build a roster around him if they expect to succeed and lock down a potential-laden future together.

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NBA

Anthony Edwards Showing Promising Progression

Anthony Edwards has been a highlight reel every single night but his poor shooting has gotten a lot of attention as well. Chad Smith details why there should be no cause for concern regarding the future of the top overall draft pick.

Chad Smith

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There is a lot of pressure that comes with being selected number one overall in the NBA Draft. This is especially true in today’s game, where the top pick is expected to have an immediate impact. Often times when a player is the top pick, they are instantly the most talented player on their team, or at least have the most potential.

This was not the case for Anthony Edwards and the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Karl-Anthony Towns is still the face of the franchise. And, as many highlight plays and rim-destroying dunks that Edwards provides, he is still a raw talent with a lot to learn. To his credit, Edwards not only is well aware of and acknowledges that fact, but has the work ethic and maturity needed to fulfill his potential.

The former Georgia Bulldog is still just 19-years-old, but he has the physical tools to do what a lot of players in the league cannot. He does an excellent job of leveraging his size, speed and quickness to get wherever he wants to on the floor. His rebounding and defense have already improved just 35 games into the season. The glaring weakness in his game is shooting efficiency, which every scouting report on him around the league has written in all caps with red ink.

Edwards is shooting 37 percent overall from the floor, 31 percent from beyond the arc and 80 percent from the free-throw line. The latter indicates that he has the touch but the accuracy just isn’t there from long range. On average, Edwards takes 14 shot attempts per game and six of them are of the three-point variety. Nearly half of his shot attempts come from the three-point line because he is typically wide open, which plays right into the hands of the defense.

Once Edwards gets a grasp of how the game is played and what the defense is trying to do to him, a light will go off in his head. The old saying goes “take what the defense gives you” but it is also important to recognize your own strengths and weaknesses. Based on his work ethic and desire to improve his game, it is only a matter of time before he figures it out.

The numbers show that Edwards is already evolving in other areas of the game. After blocking just two total shots in the month of January, the rookie recorded 12 blocks in February. His 3.2 rebounds per game in January rose to 5.1 last month and his assist average went from 1.9 to 3.3 per game.

Minnesota owns the worst record in the league, but help is on the way. The Timberwolves fired head coach Ryan Saunders after their 7-24 start to the season. Minutes after the news broke, the team already had their new man: Chris Finch, one of the NBA’s top assistant coaches for quite some time. More importantly, Finch has a long history with Gersson Rosas and a solid track record of molding talented young players.

Finch worked with a young Nikola Jokic when he was with the Denver Nuggets and helped develop Anthony Davis when he worked for the New Orleans Pelicans. He joined the Toronto Raptors coaching staff this season and molded Chris Boucher into one of the top candidates for the Most Improved Player Award; it wouldn’t be the first time he pushed a player into the award, either, as he helped Brandon Ingram win the award during the 2019-20 season.

One other notable thing that Finch did while in New Orleans is fix Lonzo Ball’s jump shot. He started with the mechanics. Instead of Ball bringing the ball up from the side of his hip, Finch was able to get him to bring it up in the middle of his body. He also worked with the young guard on his shot selection, both of which have paid large dividends this season.

There will be plenty of tools for Finch to incorporate into his plans to resurrect one of the league’s worst offenses. Along with Towns and Edwards, the Timberwolves have been getting fantastic production from Malik Beasley, who just received a 12-game suspension. Ricky Rubio has been filling in nicely as former All-Star D’Angelo Russell is out with a knee injury. Jarred Vanderbilt, Jarrett Culver, Josh Okogie and rookie Jaden McDaniels are all part of the young nucleus that Finch inherits as well.

Before the coaching change, the Timberwolves scored just 1.15 points per possession on cuts and 0.86 points per possession off of screen plays, per Cleaning The Glass. Both of these ranked bottom five in the league. Finch loves to incorporate off-ball screens and cuts to the basket so this should give them a nice boost, especially with excellent cutters like Edwards and Okogie.

Despite the typical rookie efficiency issues, Edwards has been contributing in other ways. Using his elite athleticism to get to the rim provides Minnesota a multitude of positive outcomes. Edwards can either finish at the rim, create space for others to get open shots, or get fouled and collect points at the free-throw line, being the excellent free-throw shooter that he is.

It is easy to see that Edwards has the desire to win; he cares about winning and the team’s success overall. After their game against the Raptors, all anyone wanted to talk about was his incredible dunk over Yuta Watanabe. Edwards didn’t miss a beat though. “I don’t care about the dunk,” he said. “I couldn’t make shots.” Edwards did not dwell on the moment either, leaving the podium and heading back out onto the court to get more shots up.

There is a long history of guys in this league that have struggled with efficiency, then became decent or above-average shooters. It’s all about hard work, dedication, and repetition. Edwards has all of the ingredients needed to improve that part of his game. That is just one piece of the puzzle in Minnesota but one that could finally steer this franchise in the right direction.

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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – March 1

With the All-Star break on the horizon, Tristan Tucker updates the MVP ladder, with two former MVP winners picking up steam in recent weeks.

Tristan Tucker

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In a typical year, it’s rare to see more than two players in serious contention for the MVP award midway through the season. But, as everyone knows all too well, this is no normal NBA season, with three players alternating between the top three spots on what seems like a daily basis.

With the All-Star break nearly here, it’s time to take a look at how the MVP race is shaping up at the halfway point of the season.

1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: 1)

Embiid is at the top of his game right now, averaging 31.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game in the time since Basketball Insiders’ last ladder update. In that span, Embiid is shooting 47.2 percent from downtown, with a 50-point performance against the Chicago Bulls and a 42-point performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Even more impressive, the 76ers are outscoring opponents by 18.8 points when Embiid is on the floor, which ranks in the 100th percentile of the NBA. That kind of production is literally unmatched, which should give Embiid a clear edge in the MVP race.

Philadelphia is a far more up-and-down team now than they were to begin the year, but Embiid’s continued growth has the 76ers with legitimate title hopes just five years removed from a 10-72 season.

2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (Previous: 3)

In the last two weeks, Jokic embarked on an amazing stretch, averaging 27.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game while shooting 56.7 percent from the floor and 55.2 percent from deep. While the Nuggets are still searching for answers to their season, Jokic is doing everything in his power to keep them in the playoff picture.

If Jokic’s play this year was combined with Denver’s 2019-20 record, there’s little doubt that he would be leading the MVP race. However, a lack of consistency (with some embarrassing losses to the Washington Wizards and the injury-riddled Atlanta Hawks) has kept Jokic from outright claiming the top spot.

3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers (Previous: 2)

James’ case for MVP has stagnated over the last two weeks, with the Lakers losing four-straight in that span. It’s hurt his case, but that isn’t to say that his on-court production hasn’t been ridiculously impressive, averaging 25.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game in the last two weeks.

The Lakers are 14.5 points better when James is on the court and it’s evident to see that “The King” is keeping the Lakers afloat in spite of an injury to co-star Anthony Davis. That being said, James is going to need to cut back on games like those played during the team’s four-game losing streak; he committed eight turnovers against Washington and was a minus-20 against the Utah Jazz.

4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (Previous: 6)

Curry had an incredible February, especially closer to the beginning of the month. On the month, Curry averaged 32.1 points per game while shooting 41.9 percent on 12.8 attempts from three per game. That kind of production is reminiscent of his play in 2016, when he was unanimously awarded MVP.

Curry’s February numbers would have looked even more impressive if it weren’t for mediocre showings against the Miami HEAT, Indiana Pacers and Lakers. But the fact that Curry missed 30 threes combined in those games and still finished shooting better than nearly everyone else in the league is a testament to just how rare of a talent Curry is.

5. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (Previous: Not Ranked)

With injuries to CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, it seemed as if the already struggling Portland Trail Blazers were doomed to fade out of the playoff picture. Despite four straight losses, Lillard is carrying Portland with all of his might to a potential postseason berth, with the Blazers sitting at 18-14.

Over the span of two weeks, Lillard’s been on another planet, averaging 32.2 points and 10.8 assists per game while averaging 13 threes and making 37.2 percent of them. Take a second to think of the names that are starting next to Lillard: Gary Trent Jr., Enes Kanter, Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. Trent and Kanter are playing well, but it’s hard to believe that that lineup is currently the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

6. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Previous: NR)

The competition at the bottom of the ladder is getting tighter with each passing week, with Kawhi Leonard and Luka Doncic each making promising cases while the HEAT’s Jimmy Butler has been a triple-double machine. But the selection here, at least this week, is Giannis Antetokounmpo, fresh off a game against the Los Angeles Clippers in which he put up 36 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists.

In the last six games, the Bucks have put together a five-game win streak, with Antetokounmpo averaging 33.6 points, 13 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.7 blocks per game. “The Greek Freak’s” per game numbers have soared as Milwaukee’s overall success has grown, with his numbers inching closer to that of his MVP seasons. His success was even recognized around the league, with Antetokounmpo most recently named Eastern Conference Player of the Week.

While Antetokounmpo has a lot of work to do to make up lost ground in the MVP race, the Bucks’ recent play should have him among the top vote-getters despite some likely voter fatigue.

The period after the All-Star break is when teams buckle down and commit to playoff runs, separating the pretenders from the contenders. The feeling here is that the same will happen with the MVP race and that one true leader of the pack will soon emerge. Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for the next MVP ladder!

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