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How The Heat Succeed Without Chris Bosh

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New Identity

Although the Miami Heat have been considered Dwyane Wade’s team for quite a while, Chris Bosh has been the guy to step up when they needed it. Both players are averaging 19.1 points per game this season, but it’s the long minutes per game, defensive efficiency and overall stats that make Bosh a more standout player.

With Bosh riding the injured reserve list, the Heat have really figured out how to mesh without him. The Heat are an impressive 12-5 since the news of his injury, all because of the contributions of not only the veterans, but from the younger players as well.

Players like Amar’e Stoudemire, Joe Johnson, Josh Richardson (who is also having a fantastic stretch of play since the all-star break), and Justise Winslow are really starting to step up and make the Heat a legitimate title contender. The style of play has drastically changed, and now they’re more team oriented rather than playing through their stars.

Keeping Calm Is Key

Many head coaches in Erik Spoelstra’s shoes would panic at the sign of an injury for a player like Chris Bosh. Not Erik though, instead he made a few signings at the trade deadline, let a few players go, but more than anything kept his composure.

Most coaches would try to be very active at the trade deadline looking for someone to fill the injured player’s role, but that thought never came to Erik Spoelstra. He has nothing but confidence in his team, and clearly they’re giving him a reason to have that chip on his shoulder.

With the departure of Lebron and the destruction of the Big Three, much of the pressure that was once on Erik Spoelstra is now taken off. With the Big Three there was always a push to win championships, and if there weren’t results then job security could potentially become an issue. Without a fully star studded lineup though Pat Riley has given Erik Spoelstra a lot of the freedom he needs, and Erik is showing that he knows how to use his team.

Consistent Play Down The Stretch

With many of Miami’s players being near or older than age 30, one question is being consistently asked, “how much gas do they have left in the tank?” Which leads to a follow up question, “if they can be consistent and make it to the playoffs, will they drop off or do they have a chance to win an NBA title?”

Both are tough questions, especially because it’s not soon enough to know which teams will be matched up come playoff time. Getting to the Eastern conference finals is a challenge in itself, because of the fact that there are so many talented teams stemming from the East. If by some chance they can make it to the NBA Finals, the chance of them dethroning a team like the Warriors or Spurs is highly unlikely.

Even if the Heat don’t win a championship, the fact that they can come together and win big games down the stretch shows that they truly are a talented group. Being able to adapt to injuries that occur to key players is very important, and vital for teams poised to win championships. Come April we will see how the Heat can perform in the playoffs, and maybe with some good luck Bosh could even return.

Although the Heat seem to be managing without Chris Bosh, they’re definitely missing him and his ability to hit big shots down the stretch.

A Look At The NBA In A March Madness Style Bracket

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March Madness is one of the most exciting times of the year.  This time of year has everyone wondering why every sport doesn’t decide their champion based on a big single elimination tournament.  So I decided to look at how the NBA would look if all 30 teams were in a tournament to decide the champion, 1 loss and you go home.  Here are the two sides of the bracket based on the standings right now, the Warriors the 1 seed and Spurs the 2 seed both getting a first round bye.  All games are also played at a neutral court as teams stand right now.

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 3.22.02 PM Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 3.22.28 PM

So we already see some interesting match ups in the first round.  I think the Kings would be able to pull an upset over the injury riddled Grizzlies.  I also see the Pistons being able to take out the Dallas Mavericks in the first round but other than those upsets I think mostly favorites would move on, setting up our second round to look like this.

Warriors Round 2 Bracket Spurs Round 2 Bracket

So in round two I see the Spurs and Warriors easily moving on and most likely winning their games by double-digits.  The Heat should be able to handle the Kings and the Raptors should beat the Blazers in a close match up.  The Thunder vs. the Pacers would be a great game but I see Westbrook and Durant being too much to handle for the Pacers.  The Celtics and Hawks would be another great game but I think right now the Celtics are playing too well to be taken out by Atlanta.  The upset of this round I think is the Hornets topping the Clippers and moving on.

Spurs Round 3 Warriors Round 3

This leaves us with four great games, a reminder why March Madness is so great, we end up with games like these.  The Spurs vs. Celtics would be a great game but the Spurs have too much experience and too much talent right now, I see them moving on.  The Warriors and Heat played earlier this year in a great game that went to overtime.  I think this would be another amazing game just like that but once again we would see the Warriors prevail.

Then the Cavs lead by LeBron going up against the Hornets led by Kemba Walker who is great in tournaments by the way.  Walker led the Connecticut Huskies to a Big East tournament title and a National Championship title during his college days.  But LeBron would just be too much, he always comes to play in the post-season, turning it up another level.  Our last match up may be the best one, Toronto Raptors vs. Oklahoma City Thunder.  This is a 4 seed vs. 5 seed game and we know these are always close match ups.  But this time I think the Raptors have too much depth and would move on to the final four.

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So this leaves us with our final four being the top four teams, or the equivalent to having all 1 seeds in the NCAA final four.  These are the best games we could hope for, the Warriors going up against the red hot Raptors on a neutral court would be so exciting.  The Warriors seem to be playing next level basketball and Steph Curry is playing out of his mind, he can basically shoot from anywhere on the court.  The Warriors won both games against Toronto this season, beating them at home by 5 and on the road by 3, I think this would be another win for Golden State in a very close game.  Kyle Lowry going head-to-head with Steph Curry has Madness written all over it but I see Curry and the Warriors being to tough for the Raptors to knock out.

Next, we have the Spurs going against the Cleveland Cavaliers, giving LeBron a rematch against Kawhi Leonard in another big match up.  LeBron would also have Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving by his side who can put up huge numbers.  Right now I think this Cavs team has the right formula to beat the Spurs, one of the only teams that can.  Kawhi Leonard is tough but Tim Duncan and Tony Parker might not match up as well with Love and Irving.  I see the Cavs moving on in a great game that could possibly go into overtime.

This would give us a championship game that would be a rematch of last year’s NBA Finals.  Even if the NBA had a March Madness tournament I still see the championship being decided between the Warriors and Cavaliers and Steph Curry going up against LeBron again.  This time Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving would be healthy for Cleveland but Curry also has blossomed into an amazing talent this year as well.  I think the Warriors are too tough for anyone right now and would end up beating the Cavaliers again and win the NBA March Madness tournament.

So with all the teams in the NBA getting a shot at the trophy and being thrown into a 30 team tournament, I still see the Warriors coming out on top.  They seem to be a team that would compete well in a March Madness tournament, shooting the 3 ball well and having a fast paced offense.  Also, they have Steph Curry who knows exactly how to win big games in March Madness tournament, that’s for sure.  Still you can’t deny how much fun this would be, just another reason why March Madness and the NCAA tournament is so great.  If only all leagues could decide the champion in such a do-or-die style tournament, but we will always have March Madness.

 

Building the Timberwolves for the Future

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The Minnesota Timberwolves have done exceptionally well to set up their future. Some factors fell into their lap, like wining the Draft Lottery to secure the right to select Karl-Anthony Towns. Some factors were scrutinized and calculated, like trading the face-of-the-franchise for Andrew Wiggins and passing up the Trey Burke hype train in favor of picks that would land them Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng. Add in the upside selection of Zach LaVine and a few wily vets to teach the young pups, and you have a very attractive situation moving forward.

Minnesota’s net rating is -4.1 right now, 26th in the league. With the Rubio-LaVine-Wiggins-Towns foursome on the floor, their net rating bumps up to +0.9, a mark that would rank them 12th in the league – playoff caliber. The problem is that the foursome lacks a power forward. Kevin Garnett has been fantastic as a glorified player-coach this season; management beams about the work he’s done teaching the young guys. But Garnett doesn’t factor into the future and the more appropriate options on the roster haven’t worked as the front office had planned. Last season, the T’Wolves surrendered a first round pick in the hopes that Adreian Payne could be their very own Draymond Green. While Payne has shown flashes of athletic ability, his ball skills and switchability on defense aren’t in the same universe as Green.

Gorgui Dieng has played very well in the starting lineup recently. He gives good effort, plays a bit of defense, rebounds well, and does his job. But his skill set makes him a de facto center most effective hanging around the basket. That forces Towns to power forward, a position he can certainly play, but the Wolves’ ceiling is highest when Towns plays center in a fast, athletic, ultra-switchy unit. Dieng seems to be best suited as a backup center on this team.

Minnesota tapped the international pipelines and brought in reigning Euroleague MVP Nemanja Bjelica to try to fill the void. He is shooting 34% from behind the arc and has been a viable pick-and-pop option for Rubio. However, he has struggled on the defensive end with the physicality and athleticism of the NBA, sporting a defensive rating of 110 and managing just 6.5 rebounds per 36 minutes. Not a conventional rookie, Bjelica is already 27 years old, so these issues become more daunting. He, too, may be better suited as a bench scorer matching up against other team’s backups.

So it seems the best options may lie outside the organization. What should the Timberwolves be looking for? What are the deficiencies of the young core that can be supplemented with the right power forward? First and foremost, he needs to be in the right age range – a player who will be in their prime when the young talent already on the roster will also be in theirs. Without this factor, the whole exercise is for naught because this team needs to be able to grow together as a unit. Furthermore, he needs to be attainable. Serge Ibaka or Kristaps Porzingis would be great, but that’s not plausible.

Dissect the team deeper and you’ll find that they are dead last in the league in three pointers attempted, and shoot the second worst percentage from behind the arc – serious problems in the modern NBA. Some of that has to do with the outdated offensive system they employ: encouraging iso posts and mid-range jumpers. Some of it has to do with a point guard that no one has to chase over top of screens, and multiple wings that lack consistency to their outside shots. When used properly, Towns can certainly help with the shooting deficiency, but a prospective power forward option needs to be able to hit from deep.

Harrison Barnes’ athleticism and versatility is the new prototype NBA forward. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images North America)

Beyond that, the team needs some defensive grit, versatility, and someone who can come in and get along with the current core. Scanning through the list of upcoming free agents and potential trade targets that could meet all or most of these needs brings one name in particular to light: Harrison Barnes. Listed as a small forward to conventional fans, he has played nearly half of his minutes at power forward, according to basketball-reference.com, including 85% of his minutes last season when his team went on to win the title. Somehow, Barnes is still just 23 years old, putting him right in line with the young Wolves’ trajectory. He’s a career 38% shooter from deep (41% from the corners). Pairing him with Towns, Wiggins, and Rubio would give you the foundation for a top 5 defense. Moreover, there have been countless articles written about his great work ethic and ability to fit in to a team concept, all the way back to his high school days.

And Minnesota is one of the best positioned teams to steal him away from Golden State.

Since Barnes is a restricted free agent, it will almost certainly take a max or near-max contract to pry him away from his current digs. The Warriors have already maxed out Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, and will have to max Curry soon. Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut make big money as well, so throwing a max offer at Barnes may be tough to swallow for Golden State, especially if they have any inkling of chasing Kevin Durant. Combine the rising cap with the fact that the Wolves’ two best players are still on their rookie deals, and they are in a position to gamble on someone with a huge salary offer to steal him away from his current team. Charlotte was in a similar position when they chased Gordon Hayward, but Utah did not have the potential financial bind that Golden State faces.

Even Barnes’ shortcomings match up with the Wolves’ roster. He may not rebound well enough to play power forward at an elite level, but Minnesota has one of the best rebounding point guards to help cover that – Golden State makes it work with above-average positional rebounding from Iguodala and/or Shaun Livingston. Barnes has proven to be physical enough to play inside on a consistent basis, but his rim protection can be lacking. Towns is a monster at the rim and having exterior defenders like Rubio and Wiggins limits the number of rim runs opponents will get.

The Timberwolves have seen some luck to get from a middling eight-seed contender to one of the brightest up-and-comers in two short years, but they need some more to turn into a true title contender. Taking a swing on Harrison Barnes is a risk, but it’s one worth taking. He offers versatility and athleticism that could complete this team, and his career arc is still trending up. He’s a willing passer and would be great in the corner around a Rubio-Towns pick and roll. He offers championship experience that just isn’t available in other 23 year olds on the market, something Minnesota clearly values given the veterans currently on their roster. Golden State understands his worth and will fight to keep him, but Harrison Barnes should be Minnesota’s number one priority this offseason.

 

 

Follow David on Twitter @dmcgowan24.

 

Carmelo Anthony Says Knicks Must Make Moves in Free Agency

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It’s time for the New York Knicks to be aggressive in free agency, at least according to Carmelo Anthony. Anthony said he has “good” conversations this past week with Phil Jackson regarding the issues that surround the team and now seems eager to see how Jackson and the organization approach upgrading the roster this summer.

“It’s in their court. The ball is in their court,” Anthony said. “They have an opportunity, we have an opportunity to do something this offseason. We gotta do something. It’s there.”

“It’s kind of an even playing field, so you’ve just got to hit the ground running,” Anthony said.

The Knicks are expected to have around $18 million in cap room to make moves and Jackson expressed confidence on Friday that the team would have success in this summer’s free agency. Jackson also said he hopes to add more than one player this summer but that may be difficult to do if the Knicks plan to sign a free agent to a max contract.

Anthony plans to be extremely involved in recruiting free agents and has stated that he believes New York to be a perfect landing spot for point guards such as Mike Conley or Rajon Rondo.

Per his conversations with Jackson, the organization still views Anthony as it’s cornerstone.

“That was more coming from his side, him expressing that. So it felt good to kind of hear that,” Anthony said.

“I thought it was good timing for us to sit down and talk,” he said, adding that Jackson requested the meeting. “… I won’t go into the details of [questions he asked Jackson], but it was just good for me to get it out there, talk about it, get his response, get his feedback, and that was that.”

He later added: “I got some answers that I was looking for, and I’ll leave it at that.”

Rumors have swirled that Anthony would waive his no trade clause and ask for a trade this summer if the Knicks do not improve despite Anthony saying he has no plans to leave the team.

Jackson says he got the same impression from their conversations.

“He sees the potential that we have [and] he has questions about where we’re going,” Jackson said Friday.

The open dialogue with Jackson is important to Anthony as the team strives to improve.

“I think you should want that as a player and as whoever’s the top decision-maker,” Anthony said. “If you don’t have that connection, then a lot of things can get misconstrued, miscommunicated. So I think you have to have that conversation or that relationship with whoever’s making the decisions.”

“Sometimes you go through ups and downs as an individual and as a team and things start to get to you and things aren’t as clear as you would like them to be, and there’s no answers,” Anthony said. “So for me, it’s trying to take myself out of the situation and think a little bit and exhale and breathe and not let the situation stress me out too much, because I try to control the things that I can control.”

With Jimmy Butler Due Back Bulls Season Is On The Line

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The Bulls dropped another game tonight, to the 27-33 Orlando Magic.  This puts the Bulls in a spot nobody thought they would be this year, sitting outside the playoff picture at 30-30.  Being .500 in the beginning of March was certainly not the goal for new head coach Fred Hoiberg and because the success former coach Tom Thibodeau had before him, a lot of the blame is falling on Hoiberg.

Last season on March 2nd the Bulls were 37-23 and in good position for home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.  This season the Bulls aren’t even in the playoff picture, let alone thinking about home court.  But there is one source of hope that the Chicago Bulls and Fred Hoiberg still have this season and that is the return of Jimmy Butler.

The Bulls are 8-18 over the last 26 games and they are having some serious defensive issues right now.  The Bulls have allowed 60 or more points in the first half ten times this season, that only happened 11 times in the last two seasons before this year combined.  Jimmy Butler is known for his defense though and his return should give the Bulls a boost on that side of the ball.  Butler is one of the best defenders in the league and missing him has certainly hurt the Bulls ability to stop teams.  This is just one way Butler can help this team and stop the bleeding at the perfect time of the season.

Butler could not be coming back from injury at a more vital time in the season.  The Bulls have lost four straight games and need some big wins to get back into the top 8 in the Eastern Conference.  The Bulls host Houston on Saturday, the speculated date of return for Butler, and it will be a game they need to win in order to break this losing streak and more importantly not fall behind the .500 mark.  Jimmy Butler is basically the Bulls last weapon, it’s the last chance they have of turning this season around.

Even if Butler doesn’t play on Saturday he should be back in the lineup by next week.  Including Saturday’s game the Bulls have 22 more games in the regular season.  Of those remaining games, 13 of them are against teams under .500.  Of the 9 games against teams above .500 they play Detroit, Indiana, Cleveland, Toronto and Miami twice in games that will be important for playoff position and tie-breakers since those are all teams in the top 8 of the Eastern Conference right now.

So with Butler and Rose back on the floor together along with the true leader of the team, Pau Gasol who has been playing great this season, the Bulls should get back to being a tough team to beat.  These stars along with role players who have emerged in Butler’s absence like Doug McDermott, Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis and eventually the return of Nikola Mirotic, should make the Bulls a deep team.  Also, Jimmy Butler has not gotten a chance to play with one of the best role players on the Bulls team this year, Mike Dunleavy, and he will get that chance once he returns from injury.

If the Bulls can take care of business and go at least 9-4 against the teams under .500 remaining on their schedule they should have a good shot at getting a decent seed in the playoffs.  And then let’s say they go 4-5 against the teams above .500, this would give the Bulls a 43-39 record.  With how close the Eastern Conference is you never know but if the Bulls finish four games above .500 they should at least get the 7 or 8 seed in the playoffs.  Last season the 8th seed in the East was 6 games below .500, the 7th seed was 2 games below .500 and the 6th seed was .500.  This season things are obviously different in the standings but history tells that if the Bulls finish 43-39 they should get in the playoffs.

It is unfortunate that with a team this deep we are talking about them only finishing four games above .500 but with so many injuries and other drama surrounding the team that is the case.  Fred Hoiberg may be fighting for his job in these last 22 games but with the injuries of Rose, Butler, Noah, Dunleavy and Mirotic it is tough to put the complete blame on the coach.

The Bulls are 4-7 in games where Jimmy Butler doesn’t play, so getting him back will help the team out tremendously.  We will see if the Bulls spirits haven’t dropped too far in this stretch though and if Fred Hoiberg still has control of his locker room.  If the Bulls can come together and they still believe they can do some damage in the playoffs this year then the return of Butler can be the exact spark plug the team needs.  The fans in Chicago are hoping that the dark days for the Bulls will finally be over when Jimmy gets back in the starting lineup but if Butler can’t get the Bulls in the winners column nothing will.

VenueKings.com

Can the Thunder Actually Win the Title?

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Oklahoma City took Golden State down to the wire Saturday night in what was the best game of the NBA season thus far. It took a super human (or regular Steph Curry) night to defeat them. Kevin Durant was firing on all cylinders, and Westbrook did his usual stat stuffing. Pundits have labeled this team one of the very few hopes the league has to knock the Warriors off their path to consecutive titles. But since their Finals appearance in 2012, have the Thunder gotten closer to the mountain peak or drifted back towards base camp? Injuries have been the excuse in recent disappointing playoff runs, but is the currently constructed roster a legitimate contender or just a nicely wrapped mirage?

Westbrook and Durant are both top five caliber players in the league. They are athletic and dynamic and give you a chance to win any game against any team. But in the playoffs you need more to win four out of seven games. You need balance and teammates who can step up from time to time.

Serge Ibaka is the de facto add-in to meet the current “Big 3” requirements, and he’s awesome. He’s a member of a very small group of players who can stretch the floor on offense while also anchoring the defense on the other end. Versatility that reigns supreme in today’s NBA. But for some reason, he hasn’t been making as big of an impact this year.

An Ibaka-Durant frontcourt is the lineup that gives the Thunder the highest ceiling. It’s fast, it’s switchy on defense, and it can really score. We all know the NBA is playing smaller nowadays, but OKC management has spent the last few years accumulating talent that pushes those two players towards the backcourt, instead of the front line. First round picks were allotted to Steven Adams and Mitch McGary when they already had Nick Collison on the roster. Then they cashed in their Reggie Jackson chip to ultimately max out Enes Kanter, another big. You have a finite number of resources to use to improve your roster and Oklahoma City has used those on three players (Adams, McGary, Kanter) who are all very talented, but who don’t fit into their ideal lineup with Ibaka at Center and Durant manning the four. This has left them short of talent on the wing during an era when wing players are more valuable than ever.

The shooting guard position has been a revolving door since the Harden trade. This is now the fourth season without an answer because they haven’t allocated their resources towards a solution. The only attempt they’ve made was irresponsibly flinging a first rounder to Cleveland for Dion Waiters, when better options – Iman Shumpert and JR Smith – were involved in the very same deal. Waiters’ fit has proven disastrous and, furthermore, factored into the decision to let Jeremy Lamb leave without giving him a real chance. Lamb has hit a wall in Charlotte as the season has worn on, but he is exactly what OKC is desperate for on their wing.

Singler has struggled to find his rhythm this season (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

That leaves them with a stable of guys who are one-sided. Andre Roberson is a special defender, but a career 25% shooter from deep. Anthony Morrow is the opposite: a 43% three-point shooter who can’t defend well enough to stay on the floor. That leaves Kyle Singler, who has shown competence as a potential 3-and-D wing in the past but has seemingly forgotten how to play basketball this season. Their deadline deal for Randy Foye was a last-ditch effort to solve this problem; a good move, but not one that really moves the needle. Especially since Billy Donovan has decided to play him more as a backup point guard than on the wing in smaller lineups, effectively blocking Cameron Payne’s minutes right when he was finally starting to show flashes of his playmaking ability.

Combine the big man depth with the shortcomings on the wings and you end up with lineups that put Ibaka at power forward instead of center. He has slowly moved away from the basket and toward the perimeter the last few years and that has caused his rebound and block rates to significantly decrease in each season. His three point shot has improved and is a consistent weapon, but it should just be one arrow in his quiver, not the only option. In the modern NBA, every good team’s power forward – or whoever they play at power forward in their closing lineups – can shoot threes, it’s not a huge advantage anymore. Golden State is so dangerous because ALL FIVE of their players can shoot and create offense. Serge Ibaka offers Oklahoma City the opportunity to construct a lineup like that, but not if he’s stuck at power forward.

Steven Adams is really good. He rolls to the basket with malicious intent, and isn’t afraid to meet anyone at the rim; he’s a quality starter in this league. And Durant can’t and shouldn’t play the whole game at power forward. You need other big men to eat minutes and play matchups on a nightly basis. That’s not the issue. The problem is that OKC already had their answer at crunch-time Center and suffered from a dearth of wing talent, yet the front office has continued to use its resources to acquire big men. They are getting bigger when the rest of the league is getting smaller, and it’s leaving them short of their peak. This weakness bled through on Saturday night against Golden State. They played well the whole game, but when the Warriors went to their small lineup, OKC couldn’t play their slew of big men. They were forced to go small to match, and that left them with two wing players – Roberson and either Waiters or Singler – who the defense could effectively ignore on the perimeter. That’s why OKC’s late game offense devolves into alternating Durant and Westbrook isolations or congested pick and rolls, and why they can’t sustain through injuries. They need more weapons on the outside to open things up for their stars.

Maybe Durant and Westbrook are simply good enough to overcome this roster construct, or maybe Golden State is the only team they’ll see who can run their bigs off the floor. But until Oklahoma City balances out their roster, they’ll never reach their true potential and their title hopes will always be more mirage than reality. It’s very difficult to win a title playing below your ceiling.

 

 

Follow David on Twitter @dmcgowan24.

 

Eastern Conference Current Status And Playoff Predictions

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Toronto Raptors guards DeMar DeRozan (left) and Kyle Lowry congratulate each other in the dying seconds of a 103-99 win over the Dallas Mavericks in NBA action in Toronto on Tuesday December 22, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Right now the NBA’s Eastern Conference is as close as it can possibly be.  There was a time where everyone thought the Cleveland Cavaliers would run away with the 1 seed in the East but now with Toronto breathing down their neck that isn’t even a sure thing.

The separation between the 3 seed and the 8 seed in the East is only four and a half games.  Not to mention the Pistons are technically sitting at the 9 seed right now but they are tied with the Pacers, Bulls and Hornets.  Also, the Wizards are only a game and a half back from that 8 seed as well.  Let’s take a look at what the Eastern Conference Standings look like right now.

Playoff Teams

1. Cleveland Cavaliers – 42 – 17 – 0 G.B.

2. Toronto Raptors – 39 – 19 – 2.5 G.B.

3. Boston Celtics – 36 -25 – 7 G.B.

4. Miami Heat – 33 – 26 – 9 G.B.

5. Atlanta Hawks – 33 – 27 – 9.5 G.B.

6. Charlotte Hornets – 30 – 28 – 11.5 G.B.

7. Chicago Bulls – 30 – 28 – 11.5 G.B.

8. Indiana Pacers – 31 – 29 – 11.5 G.B.

First Two Out

9. Detroit Pistions – 31 – 29 – 11.5 G.B.

10. Washington Wizards – 29 – 30 – 13 G.B.

First looking at the two teams on the outside of the playoffs right now, the Wizards and Pistons are both capable of going on a run and being a force come playoff time.  John Wall has already stated he does not want to waste a season not making the post-season.  Coming off a big win against the LeBron-less Cavs where Wall scored 37 points the Wizards proved they are capable of competing with the best teams in the east.  Look for the Wizards to find their way in the playoffs by the time April comes around.

The Pistons have won 4 straight games and by adding Tobias Harris at the trade deadline Detroit made themselves playoff contenders.  In this four game stretch they beat Cleveland, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Toronto.  So they knocked off the top two seeds in the east in the past week.  It is going to be a battle until the end with Washington, Indian, Chicago and Charlotte for one of those final spots.

Looking at the three teams tied for the 8 seed, Chicago, Charlotte and Indiana one team stands out and that is the Bulls.  Chicago is led by Pau Gasol, Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler but they have been plagued by injuries.  Rose comes back against Miami tonight and Butler should be back by the end of March.  With those three back on the court and role players like rookie Bobby Portis and second year player Doug McDermott really coming around they can be a force.  By the time the season ends the Bulls should find their way back towards the top of the standings and possibly end up with home court advantage in the first round.

Charlotte has been playing as of late, they have won 7 of their last 10 games.  Indiana on the other hand has lost three straight and in that losing streak they went from the 4 seed to the 8th.  This shows how just a three game stretch can completely change the standings in the East right now.  These two teams have been so inconsistent that it will depend on whether or not they get hot at the end of the season.

Now looking at the 4 and 5 seeds in the east, Atlanta and Miami, we see two teams trying to pull away and put themselves at the top.  Atlanta just won an important game over Charlotte and Miami in the past two weeks have won big games over Indiana, Atlanta and Washington.  They play the Bulls tonight in another big game.  These teams certainly have a lot of talent but will need to stay healthy, Boston has dealt with injuries to Wade and Bosh all season and Atlanta needs Korver and Horford on the floor to continue to win.

Boston has looked the best, sitting at the 3 seed and winners of three straight and seven of their last ten.  But Boston has a tough schedule to end their season including road games against Cleveland, Toronto, LA Clippers, Portland, Golden State and Atlanta.  They also have home games against Memphis, Houston, Oklahoma City, Toronto and Miami.  This tough stretch could end up killing the lead the Celtics have given themselves to this point and put them back towards the bottom of the Eastern Conference Standings.

Cleveland is sitting two and a half games ahead of Toronto at the 1 seed right now.  The team seems to be at odds right now though, losing three of their last five including losses to Washington and number 2 seed Toronto just on Friday.  Also, there has been talks that Kyrie Irving isn’t happy and we know they have already fired their head coach this season.  Toronto on the other hand has won four of their last five and continues to gain ground on Cleveland for that 1 seed and home court advantage throughout the playoffs.  The Raptors and Cavaliers don’t play each other the rest of season, Toronto took the season series 2-1, so if there is a tie the Raptors will hold the tie-breaker.

After looking at how everything stands right now and how quickly things can change even in just three games it is tough to determine how things will look at the end of the season.  We all know certain players, like LeBron, put much more emphasis on the playoffs rather than the regular season and seem to turn it up another level once the playoffs come around.  Here is my prediction of how the playoff match-ups in the East will turn out.

1. Toronto Raptors vs. 8. Detroit Pistons

4. Chicago Bulls vs. 5. Miami Heat

2. Cleveland Cavaliers vs. 7. Indiana Pacers

3. Atlanta Hawks vs. 6. Boston Celtics

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Kyrie Irving Wants To Win Championship For Cleveland

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Mar 15, 2015; Orlando, FL, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving (2) drives to the basket against the Orlando Magic during the first quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith made comments earlier this week stating that Kyrie Irving was unhappy playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Irving would prefer to be out of Cleveland to suit up for another franchise. Following the Cavs victory over the Indiana Pacers, Irving took the opportunity to respond to the report:

“There’s nothing to really address,” Irving said after putting up 22 points, six assists and an 11-for-11 mark from the free throw line against the Pacers. “Obviously there’s going to be some misunderstandings; it’s part of being on a team. For me, as a maturing young player in this league, I know what we have and the opportunity we have in order to be something special. My communication is open with all of my teammates, just knowing what’s going on and how I feel about things.

“For me, all that other stuff, what everyone is going to say, they’re going to pick one player, it’s going to change every single week. When they think that we’re down and out, they’re going to choose one player, so, for me it has no effect on my life or what’s going on. It’s all about winning and winning a championship for Cleveland.”

LeBron James said that Irving responded to the best way anyone can to an outside distraction and denied any knowledge of Irving’s unhappiness with the team.

“You go out and win,” James said. “You go 11-for-11 from the free throw line like Kyrie did and you lead the team to a victory. Those are just talks and reports. … I’ve been around it so long, I don’t really get involved with it too much. We have a big point in our season right now. We need to continue to get better and get ready for the postseason. I don’t think it affected Kyrie or affected our team. I don’t think he [knew about it]. I didn’t know about it, so, I’m just now hearing about it.”

It’s been a roller coaster season for the Cavs. From revisited rumors of a Kevin Love departure, a coaching change and now the drama of the Irving report, the Cavs have had a taxing season, but remain a contender in the East.

James received some criticism earlier in the season when he said that the Cavs weren’t as “hungry” as the NBA Champion Golden State Warriors. James had a chance to change his tune while addressing the rumors regarding Irving:

“I don’t think we’re the group to be looking at other people for motivation,” he said. “I think we need to figure out and worry about what we got here [rather] than try to use other teams for motivation right now. It’s a fine line when you’re trying to look at other teams and use motivation from that. Us, we need to continue to work our habits on a daily basis and not worry about what [other teams are doing].

“I mean, we don’t play Golden State again [in the regular season]. And if we’re fortunate enough to win three rounds in the postseason, which is very hard to do, then it’s a possible chance we could see them. But we shouldn’t be thinking about Golden State right now. We don’t play them again. We may not even play them again this season, so that should not be our concern.”

While it’s unclear if there was really any smoke to the fire of Smith’s report/comments it seems, at least for the time being, that Irving is dedicated to break the 50-plus-year championship drought in the city of Cleveland and help the Cavs win big this year.

Damage Control

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Daryl Morey is lauded for his keen statistical insight and thinking outside the box with how he evaluates talent and assembling an NBA roster. When he first took the job as the general manager of the Rockets in 2007, he was on the forefront of the analytics movement. Morey entered Houston as Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming were breaking down. The MIT alumnus went through a transition period of wheeling and dealing without bottoming out- an impressive feat in itself.

Morey didn’t need any equations to realize you need stars in the NBA to win the Larry O’Brien trophy. That pursuit for the light at the end of the tunnel would end up with Houston acquiring James Harden and Dwight Howard. But instead of launching the Rockets into the stratosphere, it was more of a smoke and mirrors act. Sure, Morey had his much sought-after stars, but at what cost?

Instead of being celebrated for his approach at numbers and mathematics, it’s another subject that is truly holding Morey back: chemistry.

Before the current nucleus was constructed, Morey had dealt the majority of his roster- leaving then-Rocket Chandler Parsons as the longest-tenured player at three seasons. It was a series of shrewd moves that positioned the franchise to bring in the big guns (Harden and Howard). Many questioned the pairing, but I was willing to give it a chance. Howard had been known for his off-court antics more than his ability to dominate like he had earlier in his career. Harden was largely unproven as a star, but the potential to build a franchise around him was there.

Now in their third season together and at 27-28, it can safely be said the duo are not the ones who will bring Houston its first NBA championship since 1995. That may be a hard pill to swallow for some. If Morey had taught Red Nation anything it was to trust in the process. His moves to create salary cap room left some scratching heads in the short term, but made them eventually realize the endgame in the big picture.

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Morey’s moves demanded patience for a bigger picture, asking fans to trust in the process. But what’s the plan now?

Even I would preach in trusting Morey’s process until I was blue in the face. Progression would be had. Except after reaching the Western Conference Finals last year, being under .500 at the All-Star break is a massive regression. It doesn’t take an actual chemist to see the issues on this team.

Back in December, I attended the Rockets/Wizards game in the Nation’s Capital. After a disappointing road loss the the Nets the night before, Houston would beat Washington 109-103. Exiting the court, not a single player had a smile on their face. They looked relieved more than anything; some even looked perturbed despite their fans trying to celebrate the win.

A majority of them did acknowledge Red Nation, but two players in particular looked quite annoyed: Dwight Howard and James Harden. Both left with heads down, and Howard had a towel over his and didn’t reach out to any fans at all. Part of it may have been due to fatigue from traveling and playing back to back games. Yet it still sticks with me as a microcosm not only for this season but for the entire Harden/Howard era. I may have had rose-colored glasses on before, but cannot help but notice now that the pairing was never meant to work.

After the team lost three games in a row heading into Toronto (all by double digits and TWO to the Portland Trailblazers), Jason Terry was overheard voicing his frustrations with the current squad:

Not exactly what you want a veteran’s attitude to be like at this point in the season.

It’s a combination of things that have led to this imperfect storm for the Rockets. The first was Kevin McHale being let go only eleven games in set back the team and showed that management was quite trigger-happy. Now in crisis mode, Morey is pulling the trigger more than ever in an effort to control the bleeding. But at this year’s trade deadline, he shot blanks.

In October I wrote about how Lawson’s joining the team could work well for both him and Houston. It was quite Utopian, and quite wrong. Lawson’s head simply hasn’t been there all season. While he may not be a cancerous disruption like other headcases, he’s not giving the team a reason to keep him around long term- as evidenced by Morey trying to move him to Utah for Trey Burke. It had gotten so bad with the former Tar Heel, that it was rumored Morey would cut him if he couldn’t find a destination for Lawson.

The Jazz desired a veteran point guard, but what does being a veteran mean if you have no championship pedigree or any sort of discernible talent to improve the team? Lawson was a low risk signing for Morey, but proved his lack of ability to assess how Lawson would affect team morale.

Moving Patrick Beverley to the Knicks was also on the table. That is, until the Knicks declined.

Then of course came the elephant in the room: trying to move Dwight Howard. Morey spoke with a bevy of teams, and while he may have been attractive to a majority of them- his baggage and pending free agency were not. And while I may have made a case for keeping Howard around, after learning of the two stars’ wanting each other out– it’s plainly obvious Howard had to go.

I may have had rose-colored glasses on before, but cannot help but notice now that the pairing was never meant to work.
I may have had rose-colored glasses on before, but cannot help but notice now that the pairing was never meant to work.

Despite his shortcomings on defense and as a leader, Harden is the franchise. You surround him with the right players and set him up for success. He may not have the maturity of a LeBron James, Kevin Durant or even Stephen Curry- but players like him don’t grow on trees. I view him as a younger Carmelo Anthony, with an even more dangerous offensive game. Houston fans only hope Harden sees more success in the future than Carmelo has in thirteen years.

So where does that leave the Rockets now? After moving Donatas Motiejunas and Marcus Thornton for a protected first round pick and center Joel Anthony, Morey would swap Anthony for the rights to forward Chukwudiebere Maduabum.

I tried once again to convince myself “it’s all part of the plan”, but was ultimately left scratching my head. Some may see it as a salary dump to make room for the pursuit of a star free agent this summer (cough*Durant*cough), but Morey must remember he’ll need appealing pieces to attract another star and not just bare bones with a beard.

Now Harden and Howard are left to kiss and make up. While them doing so and gelling just in time to sneak Houston into the playoffs with twenty-seven games to go would be ideal for Houston, it’s storybook material. And the ultra competitive West has zero room for pipe dreams. It’s more likely things get worse for Houston, just in time for Harden to bake a cake for a departing Howard in the summer.

After so many red flags have arisen to be at the ninth spot in the West, Morey’s recent deals may  be a white flag on the season. No one is on the level of the Warriors, especially not Houston. The team had the potential to be a playoff contender, but without consistency, focus and leadership- the Rockets are a legitimate pretender.

Morey will likely have to dig down deep again to re-invent the rocket by retooling his roster. That is, if he’s still around at the end of the season.

 

Like it? Love it? Hate it? Let me know @SeanNeutron.

 

Rockets Aggressively Shopping Dwight Howard

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Amid a disappointing season, one that had many fans & analysts expecting a deep playoff run, the Houston Rockets are ready to shake things up on their roster. That “shake up” includes Dwight Howard who the team is reportedly shopping on the trade market.

Referencing a report by Yahoo! Sports, the Rockets have begun contacting teams in an effort to gauge his value on the market. Houston is aware that it is very likely that Howard will bypass the $23.3 million he is scheduled to earn in 2016-17 to become an unrestricted free agent July 1, making a trade much more likely. League executives told Yahoo! Sports that Howard’s agent, Dan Fegan, and the Rockets are working together on potential destinations for Howard to land.

In a statement to ESPN on Thursday, Fagan switched course and said that wasn’t the case: “I’m not privy to what the Rockets are doing or not doing with respect to Dwight Howard. What I can say, with 100 percent certainty, is that Dwight has not and has never asked the Rockets for a trade. And neither have I.” ‎

ESPN’s Marc Stein spoke directly to Howard about the situation and Howard said: “Dan’s statement is true. I have not asked the Rockets to trade me, nor have I talked about right trades. I want to win. I want this situation to work. I chose this team. And I’m not running because we have been faced with some adversity.”

This is just the latest twist in a dramatic week for the Rockets. After a loss to the Portland Trailblazers J.B. Bickerstaff called the Rockets “a broken team.”After the loss to Portland Howard and James Harden met with general manager Daryl Morey and Bickerstaff “long into the night” to discuss Houston’s issues.

When asked what about the team is broken, Howard said, “I’m not going to talk about what’s broken. It’s all we do is we talk about the issues that we have. Nobody is being positive.”

It’s unclear what teams are in the mix, but Houston is moving beyond the exploratory stage of a trade and is now beginning to target destinations to open up negotiations. It is believed that Howard will be deeply involved in the talks.

Howard is averaging 14.6 points and 12.0 rebounds this season and has played particularly well this month, with averages of 16.5 points and 14.5 rebounds in four games.