Check out the takeaways below for the most significant ripple effects, credible evaluations, and best future bets to make of the year in the NBA.
THE MIAMI HEAT’S 2020 BUBBLE PLAYOFF RUN NOW LOOKS LIKE A FLUKE
When the final playoff matchups were released, the Milwaukee and Miami series looked like it was set to be one of the best in the first round. However, that has not been the case at all thus far. The Heat came back home down 2-0 in the series and were looking to turn things around on their own hardwood, but got blown out for the second straight game instead. With a 3-0 series deficit, it appears that the defending conference champs won’t even make it out of the first round, let alone win a single game.
Miami hasn’t had a top-level offense all year, and it is hurting them badly in the postseason. In the regular season, they were 25th in PPG, and in the bottom half of the league for offensive efficiency, shooting percentage, and three-point percentage. They’ve also only averaged 96.3 points per game in their first-round series. Jimmy Butler is the team’s leading scorer but clearly needs some more scoring help alongside of him.
The addition of Victor Oladipo will add more buckets and hopefully get them back to where they were in 2020. He was supposed to fill the two-way void left from Jae Crowder who was a huge mid-season addition for the Heat last year, but the Oladipo acquisition backfired once his quadriceps injury got in the way of finishing the 2021 season strong. Even though this year was a far cry from their impressive 2020 bubble run, Miami has all the pieces to make the biggest impact in this upcoming offseason.
DERRICK ROSE’S ARRIVAL TURNED NEW YORK’S SEASON AROUND
After a last-second loss in Game 1, New York clawed their way back from down 13 at half to tie up the series. It was the first postseason victory for the Knicks since 2013, and the fans at MSG were loving it. Derrick Rose had a team-high 26 points off the bench, along with the most minutes of any player in the contest. NY acquired him from Detroit and were 17-20 without him in the regular season, but 24-11 when he’s in the lineup, showing his impact on winning. Their win % with Rose is higher than any team in the East this season.
D-Rose is a former MVP and eastern conference finalist, which has been very beneficial to help lead this inexperienced Knicks team. He did this with the same coach he has now, Tom Thibodeau, but in a different city. Their history has created trust, which is why Rose saw the most minutes of any player in Game 2. Thibodeau knows Rose has been in these situations before and gives him the ball when it matters most. Ultimately, the experience of the youngest-ever MVP in tight games could be the difference-maker in the series after his arrival could effectively turn the Knicks into one of the final four teams in the East.
DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS AND NOBODY HAS A BETTER DEFENSE THAN THE CHAMPS
The LA Lakers dropped Game 1 on the road, but bounced back to even the series after a hard-fought win over Phoenix. Anthony Davis had 34 points, Dennis Schroder added 24, and LeBron James had clutch buckets down the stretch to seal the victory. LA played well offensively to tie up the series, but it was really their execution on the defensive side of the ball that fueled their series-tying victory. In Game 2, the Lake Show had 15 blocks/steals while Phoenix managed only seven and had to try to orchestrate the offense with LA continuously forcing bad shots.
Coming into the postseason, LA was the first ranked team in defensive efficiency, and they’ve stayed true to that in the first two games. Phoenix came in as the eighth-best squad in points per game at 115.3 and were held to just 100.5 at home through the first two games in the series. When it comes to the Lakers, all the attention is brought to Lebron and AD’s clutch plays, specifically during crunch time, but what really gives them a chance to repeat as champions is their elite defense and ability to force bad shots and turnovers.
Frank Vogel has coordinated a defense that has mastered the art of switching. The defenders switch the players they guard on every type of screen or halt in their own progress to keep up with their current matchup. This can expose them to mismatches, but the Lakers counter that with timely double-teams in those situations and some defenders running from one side of the court to the other to cover the guy who becomes the open man. Defense is an art more than a science and the Lakers painted another masterpiece in Game 2.
THIS BUCKS TEAM IS BUILT MUCH BETTER FOR THE PLAYOFFS THAN BEFORE
The Milwaukee Bucks took Game 2 at home, extending their series lead to 2-0. The team came out of the gates firing, and found themselves up 46-20 after just the first quarter. It was never in doubt who was going to win this game, as Milwaukee’s elite shooting led them to a blowout victory. The third seed in the East shot a remarkable 41.5% from deep, draining 22 threes. Giannis Antetokounmpo led the way with 31 points, and Bryn Forbes added 22 off the bench in just 20 minutes, knocking down six from beyond the arc.
Although Milwaukee had their lowest win percentage since their 2017-18 season, they appear better than ever after their Game 2 performance in the 1st round of the postseason. The squad has seen roster changes this season that have significantly helped them look more like a championship-caliber club. For starters, they brought in Jrue Holiday, who is a proven two-way player in this league. He’s been huge for them on both ends of the court, as well as a great leader for the locker room.
The former Pelican had a double-double in Game 2 and is proving to be a key addition to their core along with Khris Middleton and Giannis. They also brought in Bryn Forbes, who came from San Antonio and has experience playing under Gregg Popovich, bringing a championship tutelage to Milwaukee. Acquiring P.J. Tucker also brought in a veteran player and leader that has plenty of playoff experience, adding another competitor to a Bucks roster that is built different than before. These personnel changes are starting to pay off against the last team to eliminate them a year ago.
DEANDRE AYTON’S INTERIOR DEFENSE IS KEY FOR A DEEP PHOENIX RUN
In one of the most anticipated first round matchups, Phoenix defeated the LA Lakers during a defensive Game 1 battle. One of the keys to the Suns’ victory was the efforts of Deandre Ayton on both ends of the floor. He paired 21 points with 16 boards, and shut down Anthony Davis on top of the double-double. AD shot 5-16 from the field and scored only 13 points, struggling to get going with Ayton’s ferocious defense. Devin Booker added 34 points, and linked up with his big man on multiple occasions.
The former first overall pick showed why he was regarded so highly in his first playoff game on Sunday. He dominated the glass, as his 16 rebounds were seven more than the Lakers leader in that category. Additionally, the Arizona alum was tasked with defending All-Star Anthony Davis but had no problem with the assignment. AD shot nearly 50% on the season but was only 31% from the field in a matchup with Ayton. Phoenix’s future All-Star’s ability to guard the league’s best big men significantly helps the Suns chances for a deep run in the postseason.
BROOKLYN’S TITLE CHANCES ALL COME DOWN TO THEIR DEFENSE
The Brooklyn Nets and their star trio played their first postseason game together on Saturday and secured a Game 1 victory after a slow start. They found themselves down six at halftime but put together a much better performance in the second half, showing the kind of defensive potential this offensive powerhouse can reach. Although the big three combined for a robust 82 points, what sparked the comeback was their defensive efforts, holding Boston to only 40 points in the second half to claim the Game 1 victory.
It is well known that Brooklyn can score the basketball, with Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving all as viable options, but their ability to stop opponents from scoring is what could keep them from grabbing the title. The Nets were ranked 21st in points allowed during the 2020-21 regular season, which was one of the worst among playoff teams. There is no doubt they can score, but championship-level defense wasn’t thought to be part of their DNA yet they showed that in the second half of Game 1. If they can consistently defend at even an average level, it’ll be hard for anyone to compete at Brooklyn’s level
JA MORANT’S ALREADY SHOWING A MAJOR KILLER INSTINCT AT A VERY YOUNG AGE
In the final play-in game, Ja Morant and Memphis showed up on the road to defeat Golden State. The contest went into overtime, and the Grizzlies had an answer every time Steph Curry and the Warriors made it close. Morant finished the game with 35 points and made consecutive buckets in the final minute to seal the victory. Curry’s 39 points and Draymond’s triple-double ultimately weren’t enough to fend off the young Memphis squad led by Morant’s heroics.
This game was Ja Morant’s biggest test yet, where he had the opportunity to prove he’s not only a future top-5 PG but he’s a top-5 PG right now, as he was matched up with one of the best to ever play the position. It was a win-or-go-home situation, and he stepped up to the plate. The ball was in his hands when the game mattered most, and he capitalized with two huge buckets late in overtime to lift his squad to victory.
Morant has only shot 30% from deep all season but went 5-10 from behind the arc in the biggest game of the year. At only 21 years of age, Ja showed that he already has that killer instinct needed in crunch time that could be an indicator that plenty more clutch buckets are in store for Ja Morant’s very promising career in Tennessee.
TOMMY SHEPPARD HAS PROVEN TO BE A GREAT GM FOR DC MOVING FORWARD
The Washington Wizards clinched the eighth spot in the East after a dominant performance versus Indiana on Thursday. It was a great team effort, as many players balled out. Bradley Beal had a game-high 25 points, Russell Westbrook was two boards away from a triple-double, Rui Hachimura shot 75% from the field with 18 points, and Daniel Gafford posted a double-double off the bench. One thing many of these players have in common is that they were brought to DC during the Tommy Sheppard era.
Sheppard was appointed the interim general manager for DC back in April 2019 and was elevated to the GM position three months later in July. Since taking over, he has made many great moves that has Washington in the playoffs for the first time in three years. Some of these changes he’s made include drafting Hachimura, as well as acquiring Westbrook, Davis Bertans, and Gafford in clear winning trades. All four of these players have been great for DC and are key reasons why they made the postseason this year.
The Wizards had their highest win% in three seasons, and have been one of the best teams in the NBA during the second half of the year, especially when mid-season pickup Daniel Gafford has been in the lineup (17-6). Additionally, many of his new players are having their best years in major stat categories.
Russ had a career-high in assists, Gafford in points and rebounds, and Hachimura in points. Sheppard is proving to be the long-term guy at GM for Washington, and they have a bright future with him running the show. While the Head Coach on the sidelines might need to be changed sooner than later, Sheppard has proven to be a high-quality decision-maker in the front office and is building DC back to being a perennial playoff contender.
DILLON BROOKS IS EXTREMELY UNDERRATED AND VERY VALUABLE TO MEMPHIS
The Memphis Grizzlies sent the San Antonio Spurs home on Wednesday night, largely thanks to the efforts of Dillon Brooks on both ends of the floor. He had 24 points, seven rebounds, three assists, and two steals in their win, which is above his season average for all four categories. Although he had a huge impact on the offensive end, being the game’s highest scorer, his most impactful contribution came on the defensive end.
Brooks was given the task of guarding San Antonio’s leading scorer DeMar DeRozan, and he stepped up to the challenge big time. The mid-range expert was held to 0% FG in the first half and ended the game shooting about 25% below his season average, thanks to Brooks’ efforts. Although Memphis was up big early on, the game ended up coming down to a few possessions, and Brooks’ efforts on both ends was the key for the Grizzlies win and advancing them to the next play-in round.
Dillon Brooks’ standout performance against the Spurs was far from a fluke or flash in the pan. He doesn’t always look like an All-Star in the box score but Grizzlies fans have been witnessing Brooks’ high-quality play on both ends of the floor all year and it reached its peak with the world watching under the bright lights of the play-in game.
The Grizzlies granted themselves another opportunity to reach the playoffs by eliminating the Spurs and now have a Warriors team on deck that just beat them because of Steph Curry’s brilliance. Brooks will be Memphis’ No.1 reason for optimism in containing Curry and clinching the eighth and final postseason spot.
PLAYOFF EXPERIENCE AND CONTINUITY ARE KEY IN GAME 1’S
The Indiana Pacers sent home the Charlotte Hornets in Tuesday’s play-in matchup in the East. They were extremely dominant offensively and led by double-digits essentially the entire game. Indiana had seven players in double figures and Domantas Sabonis tallied 21 boards. He was only one assist from having a triple-double while the entire Pacers roster contributed to the scoring and led a balanced offensive attack.
The key to the Pacers success comes from playoff experience and continuity. Indiana brought back 98% of the team’s total minutes during the 2019-20 season, a staggering 9% more than the second-highest team, the Chicago Bulls. This clearly gave them the advantage, as teams that have proven playoff success are more likely to win Game 1’s because the squad and their stars have been through the process of postseason basketball before. When picking teams to win games, it’s always wise to go with the more experienced squad in Game 1.
PHILADELPHIA’S PATH TO REACH THE CONFERENCE FINALS IS ABOUT AS EASY AS IT GETS
After each team played their final game on Sunday night, the playoff field and seedings were finalized. The Philadelphia 76ers are looking like the big winner after the bracket was all said and done. They have had the one seed in the East locked up for a few games now, and their hard work to earn this position is looking like it is going to pay off big time. Luckily, their path runs through some of the weakest teams in the entire playoff field.
Since they’ve received the top spot, their first-round matchup is not yet determined but will be the second team to come out of the play-in tournament. No matter who they face, it’ll be a team without the week of rest they get and coming off playing two games instead of rest. Their most likely opponent is Boston who is now without Jaylen Brown while Indiana has had problems with coaches, Charlotte has struggled without Hayward, and DC’s best player Bradley Beal is dealing with a hamstring injury that could limit him.
Assuming they don’t get upset by an eight seed, which hasn’t happened since 2012 when Derrick Rose went down with an injury for Chicago, Philly will draw New York or Atlanta in round two. These two teams, although seeded fourth and fifth respectively, are extremely unproven and don’t have the same level of talent. ATL hasn’t made the playoffs since 2016 and NY’s on an eight-season drought. Essentially, Philadelphia’s competition to reach the conference finals is about as easy as it gets in the postseason.
THIS HALL OF FAME CLASS WILL GO DOWN AS THE GREATEST EVER
The trio of Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett have accounted for 11 of the last 22 NBA championships (50%), and are the main members of the NBA HOF class of 2020. They are all legends when it comes to the game of basketball, and will collectively go down as the greatest class in the history of the sport. On top of the 11 rings, they have accumulated 48 All-Star appearances, 25 All-NBA first team awards, 26 All-NBA defensive first-team honors, five finals MVPs, and four season MVPs.
When it comes to ranking them amongst the others, their biggest competition is the class of 2009, which featured Michael Jordan, John Stockton, and David Robinson. MJ is generally considered the best basketball player ever, and they rank fifth, sixth, and 19th respectively in all-time NBA win shares. Although the advanced analytics ranks 2009 slightly higher than the class of 2020 (largely single-handedly because of MJ), Kobe/Duncan/KG have more titles, All-Star appearances, and fist team All-NBA awards.
As a whole, there is no doubt this is the greatest class ever because of how decorated each player is. KG leads the Timberwolves in all-time points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals. He is the only player to lead a current franchise in all five of these categories. Duncan is widely considered the greatest Power Forward of all time as the main cog in the Spurs dominant dynasty. Kobe, by most standards, is a top-five player to ever touch a basketball court while transcending the sport and beyond with his ‘mamba mentality’.
THE PLAY-IN TOURNAMENT LIKELY ISN’T GOING AWAY ANYTIME SOON
This is the second season in a row where the NBA has had a shortened year due to COVID and has implemented some sort of play-in tournament for the final playoff spot(s). The idea was to give more teams a chance to get into the postseason because they would be missing games that they could’ve used to climb the standings in a normal year. Additionally, the NBA wanted to trial this concept for future years that would create a more meaningful end to the season.
The league was hoping that there would be more wire-to-wire races for seeding towards the end of the season with a play-in tournament at hand, and they got what they wanted. Trying to stay out of the seven spot in the West has been exciting, and still isn’t finished with two days left in the regular season. Portland and LAL still don’t know who is playing in the play-in tournament and who isn’t. Along with this, eighth place gets an extra shot to make it, where the ninth spot could be done after just one game.
Memphis and Golden State have been battling for the 8/9 spots in the West lately but this play-in has made for a potential LeBron vs. Steph matchup, which is a perfect way to drive in viewers. This year it was about giving more teams a fair chance like how DC was devastated with COVID-related issues early on, and their record reflected it. But now with an impressive second half of the season, they get a shot. With all the positives of the play-in tournament, it likely isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
THE MIAMI HEAT ARE BUILT TO BEAT ANY TEAM IN THE EAST
The Miami Heat are the reigning Eastern Conference champions and have shown recently that they can beat any team in the East, just like they did last year. They currently sit in fifth, half a game back from Atlanta. They are in a good position right now because they have a potential first-round matchup with either the Hawks or Knicks, who are considered to be two of the weakest teams in the entire postseason field as unproven teams located towards the top of the standings, that are poised to be upset.
When it comes to some of the top teams in the conference, Miami can hang with the best of them. They beat Philadelphia on Thursday night and held Joel Embiid to only six points and two boards. This is the fewest rebounds he’s ever had when playing 25+ minutes in a game. Bam Adebayo is an elite defender in this league and can shut down some of the East’s largest threats. He proved this Thursday and when Giannis Antetokounmpo was put in check last year on their way to a series victory over Milwaukee in five games.
Additionally, Brooklyn already has the most risk of any contender, given their injury concerns and lack of continuity their star trio has been able to develop. This shows that Miami has the ability to match up well and potentially defeat these top Eastern Conference squads. With their talented and proven roster along with the leadership of Jimmy Butler, the Heat have what it takes to beat any team in the East. MIA showed that last season and are displaying it once again as they enter the 2021 postseason red-hot.
NATE MCMILLAN TURNED ATLANTA’S SEASON AROUND AND ENDED THE PLAYOFF DROUGHT
34 games into the 2020-21 NBA season, the Atlanta Hawks were sitting 11th in the East at 14-20 with Lloyd Pierce leading the team. He was then fired after a slow start and missing the playoffs in his first two seasons (Atlanta had made it in the previous 10), leaving with a 63-120 record. The Hawks hired Nate McMillan to be an assistant coach before the season, who was fired from Indiana after their playoff exit last season.
Since he took over as HC after Pierce’s dismissal, Atlanta has the fourth-best record (25-11) in the NBA and clinched a postseason spot on 5/12. McMillan has led a remarkable turnaround for Atlanta, by helping his players play more for one another and less as individuals. His star player Trae Young is down on PPG from last season but is averaging a career-high in APG. McMillan has found ways for his team to be more efficient and get great production from a number of players.
Clint Capela is averaging a career-high in rebounds, and both Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic are shooting over 40% from deep. John Collins has been great for McMillan too, averaging 17.8 points per game on 55.9% shooting. Additionally, there are six players with over 40 games played this season averaging double figures for his squad, showing how he’s been able to use depth to get wins. McMillan has done an amazing job in just 36 games and has given Hawks fans new hope for the future.
THE PAUL GEORGE TRADE IS STILL PAYING DIVIDENDS FOR THE PACERS
Paul George began his career as an Indiana Pacer for seven seasons, but was traded to OKC, and then again to LAC. Indiana made this move after the 2016-17 season, and still seeing excellent value four years later. They originally acquired Domantas Sabonis and Victor Oladipo in the deal. The big man out of Gonzaga is fifth in triple-doubles this season and has become a perennial All-Star-caliber player. Oladipo also got his first nod too as a member of the Pacers.
Indiana went on to use the Paul George trade to create even more assets. They received Caris LeVert for Victor Oladipo as a result of the James Harden-Nets trade, and LeVert has blossomed into an elite scorer. He had a team-high 24 points and the dagger with under a minute left to give Indiana a clutch win on Tuesday for their play-in seeding. Indiana wasn’t the only team to benefit from a Paul George trade, however. OKC traded him after two seasons and received plenty of draft capital, fueling an exciting rebuild.
The Thunder now have the largest stockpile of draft picks this league has ever seen, as well as a young and talented Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. They’ve turned Paul George into an extremely bright future for the franchise. Time will tell if, like Indiana, the trade will pay dividends in the long run. Four years later, it looks like George’s move from the Pacers has come into full effect, as they are set up with two players aged 26 and under that can represent this franchise for years to come.
BOSTON’S PLAYOFF HOPES HAVE TO WAIT UNTIL NEXT YEAR AFTER JAYLEN BROWN’S INJURY
The Boston Celtics announced on Monday that Jaylen Brown will miss the rest of the season due to a torn ligament in his left wrist. There is currently no timetable for his return, but the organization has already dealt with this procedure this year. Romeo Langford had the same issue in September and wasn’t able to return until five and a half months later. If the same timetable is given for Brown, he can be expected back in late October, which is right around when the next season will begin.
Brown was having a breakout All-Star season for Boston, averaging career-highs in PPG (24.7), APG (3.4), SPG (1.2), BPG (0.6), FG% (48.4), and 3P% (39.7), among other things. He was rewarded with his first All-Star Game and was key for the team’s stretches of success when they had them. Alongside Jayson Tatum, the Young Jay’s were developing into a formidable duo that could put up 50 points between the two of them on any given night and had shown flashes of one day becoming the best duo in Boston history.
This is a huge blow to Boston because they had upset potential in the first round. They are a team that has proven they can win playoff series in recent years with multiple Eastern Conference Finals appearances, while many of the squads at the top of their conference have not. It is a rare season where anything could happen, but without Brown, these hopes of upsetting a team are gone, and even making it out of the play-in tournament could be a challenge as BOS’ playoff hopes will now have to wait until next year.
THIS SEASON’S PLAYOFFS ARE POISED TO HAVE MORE UPSETS THAN USUAL
This season has been unlike any other in many different ways. There was the whole restructuring of the league format due to COVID issues, and teams have had many star players missing time. These injuries have caused the standings to look a lot different than anticipated. Plenty of squads who haven’t had recent postseason success are at the top, and those who have proven themselves in playoff settings won’t benefit from many (if any) home-court playoff series this year, but will that prevent all these potential upsets?
The six through eight seeds in the West are full of proven winners. Portland has missed CJ McCollum this season, and is in sixth but made a run to the Conference Finals just two years ago. The reigning champions in LA have missed LeBron/AD and currently sit in a play-in position. Golden State hasn’t had Klay Thompson at all, has played games without Steph Curry, and is the most likely team to finish eighth. This is happening in the East too, with the reigning conference champs, Miami, in sixth as Jimmy Butler (among others) has missed significant time this year.
Now, at the top, it is full of teams who haven’t proven to have the same playoff success. None of the current one or two seeds in either conference have been to a conference championship game in at least 10 years. Phoenix did it in 2010, but both of the top teams in the East date back to the early 2000s. All of Utah, Phoenix, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn are on upset alert this postseason due to likely matching up with proven teams early on. 2021 has been a unique season already and it could very well end up with the most playoff upsets ever considering the caliber of teams with the lower seeds.
WASHINGTON HAS THE BEST BACKCOURT IN THE NBA THIS SEASON
The Washington Wizards have been one of the hottest teams as of late and are turning into a squad nobody wants to face in the play-in tournament or playoffs. The main reason for their success has been the impressive duo of Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook. The high-powered scoring prowess of Beal and the historic triple-double streak from Westbrook has revived DC’s season and is why they’ve earned the title of best backcourt in the NBA this year.
Beal and Westbrook are coming off of an overtime win against Indiana where they combined for 83 points. The Brodie had another triple-double, which has tied him for the most in NBA history with Oscar Robertson. DC’s other guard racked up 50 points for the fifth time in his career (most in Wizards history), and is second in the league in points per game this season. When it comes to ranking them amongst other backcourts, Phoenix’s Chris Paul and Devin Booker as well as Brooklyn’s backcourt of Kyrie Irving and James Harden come to mind as contenders for the top spot.
The Suns’ duo were both All-Stars, but Russ would’ve easily been one too after his amazing second half of the season. At this point, he’d likely replace Irving in the starting lineup, which would’ve made it an all DC backcourt for starters in the East. Harden and Kyrie have missed a lot of time together, forcing them to fall below Washington’s duo. At the end of the day this year, it’s hard to argue that the Wizards don’t possess the best pair of guards in the league this season.
GETTING THE 5TH VS. 7TH SEED IN THE WEST MAKES ALL THE DIFFERENCE
Coming into Friday night’s matchups, the five through seven spots in the Western Conference were all within a game of each other. All three teams (Dallas, LA Lakers, Portland) were in action during the evening. Entering the night, the order was Mavs, Lakers, Blazers. Dallas won to stay in fifth, but Lillard’s team took on the Lake show and came out victorious behind 38 points from Dame Time, which bumped them to sixth and sent the Lebron-less Lakers to seventh.
Given the new postseason format this season due to COVID, the difference between sixth and seventh place is a whole lot greater. The team who finishes in seventh will be forced to participate in a play-in tournament to even get into the actual playoff field. If this squad loses two games in a row, their entire season is over. This seems a bit harsh, but it was put in place to give more teams an opportunity due to the NBA cutting 10 games this year from 82 to 72.
Finishing in fifth place in the West this year makes a team’s life a whole lot easier. This position would likely match up with Denver, who recently lost star player Jamal Murray. They are now considered to be one of, if not the weakest team in the Western Conference playoff field without their clutch playmaker. Essentially, the difference between fifth and seventh this season is the opportunity to have a favorable first-round matchup versus being two games away from elimination. Every game matters for these three teams down the stretch with the 5th seed vs. 7th seed making ALL the difference.
KYLE KUZMA IS PROVING TO BE THE THIRD PIECE LA NEEDS
The Los Angeles Lakers are the reigning NBA champions but have not had quite the success they were hoping for this season. A large reason for this was the injuries to Anthony Davis and LeBron James. With these two missing time, there have been more opportunities for other players to step up and showcase their skills. One player who has taken great advantage of this is Kyle Kuzma.
The fourth-year forward from the University of Utah has shown recently that he can be a key player on this team, and is able to pick up some of the slack if their two All-Stars are having an off night. He had an immediate impact when he came into the league as a rookie, and is now reminding fans why he was regarded so highly. His performances are going to be key for the Lake show through the playoffs.
Although currently sitting at sixth in the Western Conference, LA still has the second-best odds to win the championship according to Vegas. They are behind only the Brooklyn Nets, who have three certified star players. In order to compete with them, LA likely needs a third key piece themselves, and Kuzma is looking like he can fit the part. A good postseason from him will really help the Lakers in their title defense, and he has shown signs that he’ll be ready for the challenge.
JA MORANT ISN’T A TOP-5 PG RIGHT NOW, BUT IT WON’T BE LONG UNTIL HE IS
Ja Morant was recently asked in an interview where he thought he ranked amongst the league’s point guards, and his response was “top five, for sure”. There is no doubt that he has already made substantial noise in the NBA less than two years into his career. Morant won rookie of the year in 2020 and has Memphis currently in the playoff hunt, but it’s too soon for an unbiased source to call him top five at the most talented position in the NBA.
When it comes to Ja’s rank right now, there is a pretty clear group of five that have been better than him this season. It is hard to argue that he has had a better season than Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, or Luka Doncic. All five of these point guards will receive All-NBA consideration this year and have earned the right to be ranked above Morant, but his time is soon to come.
Although the 2020 rookie of the year may not be a top-five point guard this season, it won’t be long until he is. Everyone from that list minus Luka is at least 30 years of age, while Morant is only 21 and has already done so much individually and for his team. It is very clear that he has a long future in this league, and is only getting started. With how much he’s accomplished in only two seasons, there is no reason to doubt that Ja is well on his way to becoming a top-five point guard in the NBA, sooner than later.
LONZO’S DRASTIC DEVELOPMENT GIVES NOLA 1 OF THE NBA’S BRIGHTEST FUTURES
The New Orleans Pelicans are fueled with one of the best young players in NBA history. Zion Williamson is having an all-time efficiently high-volume season, and he’s only a NBA sophomore. NOLA’s No.1 scorer F Brandon Ingram is just 23 years old and under contract for four more years. The Pels have their star duo intact for the long-term, but it’s Lonzo Ball‘s recent rise that can take them over the top during the next decade.
A day after Golden State got the best of New Orleans during a Marvel-inspired AR broadcast, the Pelicans were looking for revenge to stay in the playoff race. As good as Zion (23p, 12r, 7a) played, Ingram struggled (13p, 5a, 3r), and the Pels’ playoff chances would’ve quickly diminished if it wasn’t for Lonzo Ball showing his future All-Star potential on Tuesday. Ball tied his career-high with 33 points, went 7-13 on 3PA, and drained the game-winning bucket to lift New Orleans to victory.
Ball’s future is somewhat uncertain as a pending RFA. The front office will be able to match any offer Ball receives this summer, but could choose not to re-up the 23-year-old Guard after drafting Kira Lewis in the lottery last year. Lonzo could join his brother LaMelo in Charlotte under legendary owner Michael Jordan, or could choose to play in a bigger market like New York or Chicago.
The UCLA product is putting up career-highs across the board in 2020-21 and showcasing the ability to impact the game in all facets. If he does stay in Louisiana alongside Zion and Ingram, it would give NOLA one of the brightest futures in the NBA.
THE FUTURE OF SPORTS BROADCASTS IS HERE WITH AR
Monday night’s matchup between Golden State and New Orleans looked a little different on TV than people are used to seeing. ESPN partnered with Marvel to take sports broadcasting to new heights. Marvel implemented augmented reality where images appeared on the screen in real-time. There were superheroes around the arena, animations when a basket was made, and name tags following players around at times, amongst other things.
This was the first time something of this nature had been done in the NBA, and it was very interesting to see. There was even the first-ever “Arena Of Heroes” champion, which was awarded to Draymond Green (slightly different than the NVP which was solely based on fan votes). Green obtained this by accumulating the most “Hero Points”, which is a combination of all-around production like points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. Missing a shot, free throw, or turning the ball over leads to a deduction of hero points.
AR can be implemented in more ways and build on what happened Monday night. For example, it could show how many points a player has at the time live over his head. Also, displaying statistics and trends like “Made last four threes” would be something that a viewer may be interested in or seeing the percentages of how likely a player will make each shot based on a variety of factors.
There is even the option to go down the fantasy route, and show how many fantasy points they’ve racked up so far or add a wagering element to the broadcast by showing how the spread is looking based on the current score or when the over cashes, add in some type of edit at the basket that shows money signs or something. The opportunities for AR are endless, and it will be exciting to see where it goes from here with this game laying the groundwork for a bright future ahead.
DURANT VS. GIANNIS IS THE MOST SIGNIFICANT MATCHUP IN THE NBA
Milwaukee and Brooklyn squared off on Sunday night, and two of the NBA’s best went at it. Both Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo scored over 40 points in one of the best games of the year. These players are on a mission to establish themselves as the league’s best at the moment, and they showed that when they met head-to-head.
KD is on a mission, and wants to prove that he can win outside a Golden State team who were already proven winners without him, and Giannis is still looking to solidify himself as a champion. Antetokounmpo has won consecutive MVPs, and wants to prove that he is a winner. If the season ended today, these two teams would be set for an epic second-round matchup in the East, where only one of them would be able to accomplish their goals.
A playoff matchup between Giannis and KD has much more implications than just the team that would advance to the next round. Both of them would have the opportunity to show who the best player in the league is right now (with LeBron saying he’ll never be 100% again), and even who the possible best team in the league is. It also has lasting impacts on the future, where they could cement their legacies, or even put themselves higher in the GOAT debate.
CAPELA DESERVES MORE CREDIT FOR ATLANTA’S UNEXPECTED SUCCESS THIS SEASON
The Atlanta Hawks have been one of the most surprising teams in the NBA this season. They are currently in fifth place in the Eastern Conference and are one game behind fourth to potentially host a first-round playoff series when most experts didn’t pick them as a playoff team. Clint Capela is coming off a 20-point, 11-rebound performance in their win over Chicago on Saturday night, and he is no stranger to sensational stat lines like this.
When thinking about the success of Atlanta, it’s easy to point to Trae Young as the main reason why, but Capela is flying under the radar and deserves more credit. ATL’s big man has been averaging a double-double this season, having one in 43 out of 57 games this year. Additionally, it is the best rebounding season of his career. Not only is he the best board-getter for the Hawks, but he averages the most per game in the entire NBA during 2020-21. His presence is felt on the defensive end too, averaging 2.1 blocks a night.
The 6’10’’ Center’s impressive season has had a huge impact on Atlanta this year and isn’t talked about much due to the impressive shooting around him. Young is averaging 25.5 points per game while Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari are both shooting over 40% from beyond the arc. It’s a shooters league now, and this has diverted attention away from Capela’s amazing season. However, there is no chance the Hawks would be anywhere close to getting a top-four seed if it wasn’t for their young Center’s contributions.
TYRESE HALIBURTON WAS THE STEAL OF THE 2020 NBA DRAFT
Tyrese Haliburton was drafted 12th overall by the Sacramento Kings and is proving to be the best value pick of the draft. He is currently the third most likely candidate to win this season’s rookie of the year award, behind Anthony Edwards and LaMelo Ball, who were both top-three picks. Haliburton has shown throughout the season that he should’ve been picked earlier, especially recently with De’Aaron Fox out of the lineup.
Since Fox has been out due to injury, Haliburton has been averaging 18.5 points per game and nine assists, nearly a double-double. In this four-game span, he’s averaged more points and assists than both Edwards and Ball have this season. This shows that when Halliburton has more opportunities to be productive, he makes the most of it and excels with the ball in his hands.
Haliburton’s double-double in Sacramento’s victory over the LA Lakers proved once again why he deserved to go earlier in the draft. At only 21 years of age, Haliburton is giving Sacramento fans something to look forward to as part of a young nucleus in northern California. He might’ve fallen to the 12th overall pick, but Tyrese is making it clear that Sacramento found the steal of the draft in 2020.
KEVIN PORTER JR.’S DEVELOPMENT WILL DICTATE HOUSTON’S FUTURE OUTLOOK
The Houston Rockets are dead last in the league this year and have made it clear they are in full rebuild mode. They have recently parted ways with their head coach, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Victor Oladipo, among others. Houston came to the conclusion that these players would not make them championship contenders, and have the future in mind.
One of their key pieces moving forward is 20-year-old Kevin Porter Jr., who is coming off a career-high 50-point performance in a win over Milwaukee. KPJ actually played 15 games in the G-league this year and has only been featured 22 times this season for Houston. He got the call-up after dominating the G-league with 24.1 points per game.
Porter Jr. is the youngest player in NBA history to reach the 50-point, 10-assist mark. Averaging 15.2 points per game this season for a poor Houston squad has proven that he can be a force in this league for some time to come. The USC product has showcased his potential as an offensive focal point, and Houston will want to keep him a part of their squad for as long as they can. KPJ will be an important building block for Houston as his continued development will dictate their future outlook.
STAR PLAYER INJURIES ARE PILING UP AND SIGNIFICANTLY ALTERING PLAYOFF SEEDING
In a 10-game slate of NBA games on Wednesday night, stars like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Trae Young, Gordon Hayward, LaMelo Ball, and De’Aaron Fox were all inactive, and each of their teams lost. Some of these games were blowouts, so it is hard to say that their teams would’ve won with them on the court, but these are all difference-making players and their absences were truly felt. With playoff implications on the line, surely the games wouldn’t have gone the same way if they were able to lace them up.
All of these injuries piling up recently clearly affected the games tonight, and are altering the playoff seeding as well. Pretty much all of these teams who played without stars Wednesday night are in playoff or play-in position. Obviously, these teams were missing their key players for only one night in some examples, but it can hurt them in the coming weeks too. It can very well lead to the teams falling down the standings, allowing for healthier teams to catch them and give them a shot at playoff contention or higher seed.
Players like LeBron James who are more seriously injured have it worse than ones who are more just hurt and have been in and out of lineups without missing too many games in a row. James will likely head almost right into playoff basketball, which is far more exhausting than the regular season and to go into that after a long absence is a tough thing to do. The severity and duration of these injuries to star players are going to be very impactful on the final seeds and are going to play a major factor in this year’s postseason matchups.
ANFERNEE SIMONS CAN SHOOT AS WELL AS HE CAN DUNK
Anfernee Simons made a name for himself during this year’s All-Star break, where he showed off his 40+ inch vertical leap and was crowned the dunk contest champion. In Portland’s matchup with Indiana on Tuesday night, he made it very clear that he is more than just a dunker, as he can also be a knockdown shooter as well.
Simons had a season-high 27 points to lead Portland in scoring. He scored every single one of his points from deep. Heading into the half, Simons was 4-4 from three, and made his next five, finishing 9-10 from beyond the arc on the night. Those nine trey balls are only one shy of Damian Lillard’s franchise record (10) during one game and tied the all-time NBA record for the most consecutive 3PM (13) without a miss, as he entered the game making all four of his most recent 3PA.
The 21-year-old Simons is in his third full season after being drafted in the first round by the Blazers in 2018. He’s only been getting 16.3 minutes per game this season but was left in for 24 on Tuesday night thanks to his hot hand. Simons has now made it known that he can light it up from deep, and could use his performance versus Indy to start seeing more minutes. The high-hopper has shown there’s more to his game than just kissing the rim.
MPJ IS THE NBA’S MOST IMPROVED PLAYER AND A FUTURE MVP CANDIDATE
Michael Porter Jr. attended the University of Missouri for one year before entering the draft. MPJ was picked 14th overall by Denver despite only playing in three games and making just 10 shots throughout his entire collegiate career. Additionally, he was selected this high with the knowledge that he would likely miss his entire first season in the NBA as he recovered from a back injury, however that didn’t stop Denver from making Porter Jr. a lottery pick due to his sky-high ceiling that he’s starting to scratch the surface of.
Despite being out for almost a year in college, and missing an additional season once he got in the league, MPJ was still rated highly on plenty of team’s draft boards and is showing why that was the case this season. In his second season with Denver, he is averaging 18.2 points per game, while shooting an efficient 54% from the field and 44.3% from deep. A lot of the attention has been given to teammates Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray for their fantastic seasons, however, with Murray out for the foreseeable future, it’s now MPJ’s time to shine.
Regardless of what teammates are healthy or not, Porter jr. has been a key reason why Denver sits top-four in the fierce Western Conference. MPJ has started 43/50 games he’s played in and is getting 31.1 minutes per game as he proves he can be durable throughout a full NBA season. His numbers have increased in every major category since last season and he’s shown dramatic improvement from his restricted rookie season. If he stays healthy, MPJ has the skillset to become an MVP candidate in the future, and his significant increase in production should make him the Most Improved Player this year.
LOU WILL IS STILL A HIGH-QUALITY SCORER IN THE CLUTCH
The Atlanta Hawks have been one of the more surprising teams this season. They currently sit tied for fourth in the Eastern Conference ahead of teams like Boston, and last year’s champs, Miami. Atlanta has been especially good more recently in the season, and Lou Williams, since his move from LA, has been a key reason why.
Atlanta defeated the third-seeded Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday night thanks to a fourth-quarter comeback, and Williams was the spark for it. He had 15 points, and every single one came in the final period. 12 of his 15 came from three-pointers all within the last seven minutes of the contest. One of his buckets gave the Hawks their first lead of the second half.
Lou Will has been clutch throughout his career and still is at 34 years of age. The Clippers trading him away made it clear that they didn’t value him too highly anymore, but he is proving to them that he can still ball, especially in the clutch. His 23.4 minutes per game with Atlanta have been efficient and key to their recent success, going 11-3 with Williams in the squad.
COBY WHITE COULD JOIN LAVINE & VUCEVIC AS A BIG 3 IN CHICAGO
The Chicago Bulls have been struggling to string wins together all season, but the performances of Coby White have given fans something to look forward to in the future. White is averaging 14.5 points per game in his sophomore season out of UNC, and just put together a 31-point performance against Miami.
The 21-year-old guard out of North Carolina has shown that he has the potential to become one of the league’s top playmaking guards in the future. With his offensive skills combined with Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic, Chicago has a potentially dangerous big three on their hands. Averaging 19.5 points per game over his last six outings, White has shown he can be an efficient scorer in this league, and can step up when LaVine is unable to play.
Paired with veteran coach Billy Donovan, White has the skills to be a household name in the NBA someday. With proven All-Stars on his team, he has every opportunity to get more open looks and blossom into a young star. If White can produce similar numbers as he did against Miami on a consistent basis, there is no reason to doubt that Chicago will have a formidable big three in the near future.
RUSSELL WESTBROOK’S HISTORIC TRIPLE-DOUBLE STREAK HAS REVIVED DC’S SEASON
The Washington Wizards currently hoist the NBA’s second-longest win streak at seven games after their dominant win over OKC. This is largely thanks to the heroic efforts of Russell Westbrook. In his last 16 games, he has 14 triple-doubles, including 10 in the last 11. Additionally, Westbrook is already Washington’s all-time triple-double leader and hasn’t even played a full season with them.
Washington was on pace to be the league’s worst team at the beginning of the year, but are now 9-1 over their last 10 games and have their eyes set on the postseason. With the new rules in this unforeseen year, teams ranked within the top 10 of their conference have a shot at making the playoffs. Currently in the tenth spot, Washington would have to win two play-in games to secure a spot in the playoff field where they’d face the East’s No.1 team in a seven-game series.
The main reason they have this opportunity is due to this historic triple-double streak Westbrook is on. He has one in over half of the games he’s played in this year. The Brodie has needed to put together this unprecedented level of production to pull his team out of the trenches and back into playoff contention. With Washington and Westbrook playing the way they are now, they are poised to make noise in the play-in tournament and potentially go through the gauntlet.
BOSTON CAN BEAT ANYBODY WHEN KEMBA WALKER PLAYS LIKE AN ALL-STAR
Boston has now won seven of their last eight games, and Kemba Walker’s recent uptick in production is a large reason why. Against a top-two team in the West on Thursday, Jayson Tatum struggled from the field (3-17 FG) but Boston was still victorious, thanks to Walker’s contributions. The month of April has been kind to the Guard, who is averaging 17.7 PPG on 46% FG during this span. Additionally, the C’s are 8-1 when he plays for them this month, with their only loss coming against the East-leading Philadelphia 76ers.
Boston and Kemba’s success this month hasn’t been due to a weak schedule. They’ve beaten premier teams like Phoenix, Denver, Golden State, Portland, New York, and the LA Lakers all within the last three weeks. An 8-2 record in their last 10 contests has pulled them to within half a game of the top four in the East, putting them close to earning home-court advantage in the first round.
With Kemba’s stellar performances recently, Boston has made it clear they aren’t afraid of anyone. They’ve beaten top teams night in and night out, and have proven they can beat anyone when they’re at their best. A Cardiac Kemba with All-Star numbers along with the promising duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown is a recipe for great success. If the 4x All-Star continues to play well, Boston will re-emerge as legitimate contenders this season, despite earlier periods of poor results this season.
NIKOLA JOKIC IS CEMENTING HIS MVP CASE IN JAMAL MURRAY’S ABSENCE
Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets beat Portland in a close matchup on Wednesday night, and it was the Joker who stole the show. Jokic led the team in points, rebounds, and assists. Jamal Murray was recently ruled out for the season with a torn ACL against Golden State on April 12th, and Jokic has had no problem picking up the slack.
In the four games Murray has been out thus far, the Joker has led his team in points three times, rebounds three times, and assists in all four games. He’s had a triple-double once and a double-double three times. On top of this, Denver has won every single game since Murray’s absence (4-0), and the 2020-21 MVP is the main reason why.
Before Murray’s injury, Jokic was the odds-on favorite to win the league’s MVP award, and these last four games without their star guard have helped him cement his case. With the Joker averaging nearly a triple-double this year (26.4 PPG, 11.0 RPG, 8.7 APG), it is clearly his award to lose. Jokic has been playing at the highest level all year, but his performances in the past four games without Murray in four straight wins over teams like Miami and Portland further prove why he deserves to be this season’s league MVP.
MINNESOTA’S FUTURE IS BEYOND BRIGHT WITH THE NBA’S BEST YOUNG TRIO
Minnesota finally got big performances from all three of their young studs during a win on the road over Sacramento. Their young trio of Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, and D’Angelo Russell all tallied at least 26 points while KAT also had a season-high in rebounds with 18. The Timberwolves’ future is looking bright, as all of these players are aged 25 or younger.
Between the three of them, KAT, D-Lo, and Edwards are averaging 61.8 combined PPG this season, which is roughly 56% of the team’s scoring throughout the year. Russell has already proven he has All-Star potential, getting the nod in 2019. He’s averaged an underrated 17.6 points per game throughout his career, and is waiting to find a permanent home, having bounced around the league, playing on four different teams throughout his seven NBA seasons.
Edwards has shown that he will be a force in this league for a long time to come, and is this season’s odds-on favorite to win the rookie of the year award unless LaMelo lights it up upon his return. KAT won this award in 2015-16, and has received two All-Star bids as well. The 25-year olds (KAT and D-Lo) have shown they can be amongst the best in the league, and the rookie (Edwards), is on his way there too. This recipe makes for the NBA’s best young trio, giving Minnesota an extremely hopeful future ahead of them.
Throw in the fact that this team could add a prominent prospect in the 2021 NBA Draft, and that could give Minnesota enough firepower to quickly emerge as a Western Conference contender. The T-Wolves only keep their pick if it falls within the top-3 or it heads to Golden State in the D-Lo trade. Malik Beasley also has averaged 20+ PPG during his time with the Wolves and gives them another championship-caliber contributor. There has never been a winning kind of culture in the Twin Cities, but with this young trio intact, it looks like Alex Rodriguez picked the perfect time to invest in this franchise that has a very bright future.
STEPH CURRY IS ON A TEAR THE NBA WORLD HAS NEVER SEEN BEFORE
Golden State is coming off a road win over the Eastern Conference’s top team, Philadelphia, and Steph Curry recorded another ridiculous performance as lit up Philly’s premier defense for 49 points and 10 threes on 50% shooting and 58.8% from deep. This has now marked his 11th straight game with 32+ points. Since his five-game absence, Curry has been simply unconscious.
The baby-faced assassin is averaging an insane 40 points per game over his last 11 contests. He is doing this all while averaging just above 50% from downtown. Curry is already the greatest shooter of all-time, but this stretch of games is like none that’s ever been seen before in NBA history. He actually has more games with 40+ points and 10+ threes (four) in the last eight days than any other player has had in their entire career.
More importantly for the team, they have went 7-4 games during Curry’s hot stretch including wins over top teams like Milwaukee, Denver, and Philadelphia. He is almost single-handedly keeping Golden State’s playoff hopes alive, and will have to continue to stay hot to do so. Regardless, this is the best stretch of shooting this league has ever seen by one player, and this is impressive even for the greatest shooter and best Warriors player of all-time.
BROOKLYN NETS HAVE THE MOST RISK OF ANY NBA CHAMPIONSHIP CONTENDER
In Sunday night’s matchup with Miami, Brooklyn lost a heartbreaker to a Bam Adebayo buzzer-beater. However, the biggest hit to Brooklyn came in the first quarter when star player Kevin Durant left the game with a left thigh contusion. Durant is likely to miss even more time now and has only played in 24 of the team’s 57 games this season.
The star trio of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden have only played together in seven games this season. Health, personal reasons, and COVID issues have kept the most high-profile Big 3 from playing many games together this season. Many of the real contenders this season have had issues with missing stars, but Brooklyn has been dealing with it all season.
Philly has missed Joel Embiid, the LA teams have played games without their star duos, and Denver, along with Utah, are without a star player for some time now. Although Brooklyn has posted an impressive record and overcome this adversity all season long, they are the title favorites under the assumption they will all be ready to go by playoff time. With the new injury to KD, there is even more doubt this will be possible as they’ll lack continuity even at full strength and have the most injury risk of any title contender.
HOW UTAH OVERCOMES THIS ADVERSITY IS A TRUE TEST OF THEIR CHAMPIONSHIP CHANCES
The Utah Jazz currently hold the best record in the NBA, sitting at first place in the tougher Western Conference. Unfortunately, Utah lost their best player Donovan Mitchell to an ankle injury on Friday night against Indiana and will now miss several games. For the first time this season, the Jazz will now be faced with a major blow due to injury, and will be faced with adversity like many of the other Western Contenders have seen.
A large part of Utah’s success comes from the fact that they’ve had minimal injury problems all year long. With Mitchell out for at least several games, the Jazz will have to perform at their best to keep their impressive record. This time period without Mitchell will be a true test to how great Utah really is, and will challenge players like Rudy Gobert, Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdonavic, and Jordan Clarkson to step up.
The LA Clippers have played multiple games without Kawhi Leonard and/or Paul George, the LA Lakers have gone without players Lebron James and Anthony Davis, Denver is now missing Jamal Murray, and Portland has been without CJ McCollum for a while this season. Utah now joins the list of Western contenders with injury problems, and will have to showcase why they deserve the best record in the NBA.
JULIUS RANDLE IS GIVING NYK FANS HOPE AGAIN AS THE NEW FACE OF THE FRANCHISE
Julius Randle dominated Dallas with a 44-point performance to lead New York to a win inside his hometown’s arena, American Airlines Center in Dallas. Randle was selected to the All-Star Game and is the first Knicks player to receive this honor since Kristaps Porzingis in the 2017-18 season. He’s averaging 23.2 PPG this year for a New York team that is surprisingly still in the thick of the playoff race.
New York currently sits sixth in the Eastern Conference, which comes as a shock to the general public. The Knicks have been a laughing stock of the NBA for the past few years and nobody expected that to change this season. Julius Randle’s stellar season has caught the NBA by surprise and has restored faith with the fans that this team is headed in the right direction.
The star forward leads this young Knicks team in PPG, RPG, APG, and is second in PER behind Norvel Pelle, who has only featured in three games all year for the Knicks (so that data is skewed). Randle’s averaging a double-double and has put New York back in the playoff conversation for the first time since 2013. He’s elevated his game significantly during his two seasons since joining NY and has quickly become the new face of the franchise. With him and Tom Thibodeau leading the way, Knicks fans have hope in this organization again.
THE YOUNG JAYS ARE PRIMED TO BECOME BOSTON’S BEST DUO EVER
Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have been showing everyone all season long that they are a duo to be taken seriously. Brown is fresh off a 40-point game against the Lakers and both are averaging career-highs in points and field goal percentages this season. Combined, the duo is averaging over 50 PPG this season alone, with 24.3 from Brown and 25.9 from Tatum.
This duo in Boston are both under 25 years of age and are getting better with each season. With this stellar production so early in their careers, they have the potential to become the best duo ever in Celtics history. When it comes to the era of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen, only Pierce had a season for the Celtics with more PPG than the young stars do now, and that was before he had a teammate worthy of such consideration.
They’ve shown they can catch up to Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. Brown and Tatum have both received All-Star bids already, and are primed to obtain many more throughout their careers. McHale never averaged more than 26.1 PPG and only above 23 once. Brown and Tatum are already combining for 50.2 PPG with 5-10 more years of elite production ahead of them. Championships will be key to be considered the greatest duo, but they’re already making their case as the best scoring duo in Celtics history.
REGGIE’S RISE IS KEY FOR THE CLIPPERS CHAMPIONSHIP ASPIRATIONS
The Los Angeles Clippers PG Reggie Jackson is fresh off a 29-point outing against his former team, the Detroit Pistons. Five of those points came during a game-winning jumper with 2.3 seconds left in the game and a game-tying 3PM during the prior possession with under 20 seconds remaining. Jackson has been extremely important to LAC this season, playing in the second-most games on the team, and picking up slack when teammates Kawhi Leonard and Paul George frequently miss time.
The Clippers PG is also tied for the team’s best AST/TO ratio at 2.8, showcasing how efficient he can be for this team. He’s seen a recent uptick in production as well. Jackson has five 20+ point games in the last three weeks, but only two prior all season long. He has really been coming into his own as of late, showing how much better he can make this Clippers squad.
There has been a desire for LAC to land a true PG in recent years, which could be the missing piece that’s holding this team back from a championship. With Jackson’s recent performances, he is looking like he could be the answer to the ball handler situation in LA. If the guard keeps stringing together these impressive performances, it will greatly increase LA’s odds of bringing home the title, as they would have another weapon at their disposal alongside Leonard and George.
EXAMINING THE IMPACT OF JAMAL MURRAY’S SEASON-ENDING TORN ACL
The Denver Nuggets’ star Guard Jamal Murray suffered a season-ending knee injury when he tore his ACL against Golden State on Monday night. Murray was in the midst of the best campaign of his career, averaging career-highs in PTS (21.2), FG% (47.7%), 3P% (40.8%), FGM (7.9), FGA (16.5), 3PM (2.7), 3PA (6.6), FTA (3.2), and STL (1.3) this season after completely breaking out in the Orlando bubble with some memorable performances. Now he’ll miss an extended period of time, while an injury of this magnitude not only impacts the Nuggets but a variety of teams across the league.
1. Denver Nuggets 2021 playoff chances have decreased infinitely
Without Murray in the lineup for the remainder of the year, Denver’s playoff chances are looking extremely bleak. In a tough Western Conference, it will now be a serious struggle to even escape the first round with an upcoming matchup likely against the loaded Lakers, Clippers, or Blazers.
Denver still has their MVP in Nikola Jokic as well as a strong supporting cast with Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, and Will Barton, but Jamal Murray‘s impact at the end of close games is irreplaceable and will be awfully missed during those tense postseason matchups where the Kentucky hooper has proven to elevate his game time and time again.
2. The wild, wild West is now down to 4 legitimate contenders
With Denver not looking like a legit conference contender anymore, it benefits the other teams in the conversation. The squad who draws Denver in the first round will be playing a much less fierce roster than they previously thought. Currently, this would be the Lakers. Additionally, teams like Utah, Portland, and LAC would avoid a potential first or second-round matchup with Denver, giving them better odds to make the Finals as well, considering DEN was the hottest team in the league since acquiring Aaron Gordon.
3. This injury not only impacts this season but next year as well
Not only does Murray’s injury hurt Denver this season, but it is likely that he will miss most of the 2021-22 season too. This means that Denver could begin the season without those 20+ points per game and the winning plays that Murray brings to the table nightly. If they are unable to crawl back to a top spot in the West, it is likely they will be due for an unfavorable matchup against a top team in the first round, and it’s rare to even see a player return to form just one year after his recovery, so Denver likely won’t be a realistic title contender again until the 2023 postseason at the earliest.
STEPH CURRY IS CEMENTED AS THE GREATEST PLAYER IN WARRIORS HISTORY
It was a night to remember for Steph Curry in the Chase Center. The star guard dropped 53 points on 10-18 shooting from deep in their home defeat of Denver. Not only did he have an impressive stat-line, but he passed Wilt Chamberlain (17,783) for the most points ever in Warriors franchise history, needing 19 points entering the night to do so and accomplishing the feat in the first quarter.
Chef Curry is already solidified as the greatest shooter to ever live, but he has now officially earned himself a new title: Greatest Warriors player ever. Chamberlain is a legendary player and one of the best all-time, but Curry has done more for this franchise than any player ever. He brought home three championships, and the first for the team since 1975, while Chamberlain won none for the franchise and some could argue he’s more known for his stops in Los Angeles or Philadelphia.
The baby-faced assassin has spent his entire career in Golden State and has changed the entire game throughout his time there. He made the three-point shot more popular and revived a fanbase in the San Francisco bay area. He’s been undeniably impactful to this organization, and deserves a lot of credit for the respect they have today as a franchise. Curry has surely established himself as the best to ever put on a Warriors jersey and now has the points to prove it.
IN AN ERA THAT REJECTS MID-RANGERS, DEROZAN HAS PERFECTED IT
DeMar DeRozan had 33 points for San Antonio in their win over Dallas on Sunday night. The final two of these 33 came on a last-second mid-range jumper to put his team up two and win the game. He was able to get to a spot on the floor that he feels comfortable and knock down the shot.
The spot on the floor where DeRozan shines is unlike most of the league. He is a mid-range expert and makes a living off these shots. As the years go on, fewer and fewer mid-range shots are being taken across the league, as players have been advised to expand their game beyond the three-point line. In fact, most players nowadays need a successful three-point jumper to even play in today’s NBA.
Although the league is moving away from the mid-range shot, DeRozan still makes a living off it. He is currently on a 5y/$139M contract that he earned by shooting the mid-ranger at a high clip. Having a player like him on the team brings a different look to the offense, and makes it more diverse with more ways to score effectively, which is why DeRozan continues to thrive, even in today’s NBA.
GARY TRENT JR. IS SHOWING ALL-STAR POTENTIAL SINCE JOINING THE RAPTORS
Gary Trent Jr. was traded from Portland to Toronto along with Rodney Hood in exchange for Norman Powell on NBA trade deadline day, and ever since his move, he has been balling for the Raptors. In Saturday night’s matchup with Cleveland, Trent Jr. dropped a career-high 44 points and shot an astounding 17-19 from the field, including 7-9 from beyond the arc and 3-3 from the FT line. Not only did he lead the team in scoring, but he had the highest +/- of anyone who saw the court that night.
The Duke product is now averaging 22.0 PPG over his last six games with Toronto, as he adds more breakout performances to his resume that began during last year’s run in the bubble. He’s gained the trust of his new team already, and takes a high percentage of the Raptors’ shots, which is harder to do with guys like Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in Portland. He also hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer to beat DC a few games back.
The promise he has shown with his new team proves that Trent Jr. has a higher ceiling than some may have thought. With the way that he has been playing in Toronto, it’s not unreasonable to picture him as an All-Star in the near future. The Raps are a well-coached team, and the guy taking their big shots and providing that scoring punch has full capability of possibly reaching All-Star status in the near future. It is a matter of consistency and continued improvement now to see if he can accomplish such lofty goals.
JAYSON TATUM IS ON HIS WAY TO BECOMING THE BEST CELTIC SINCE LARRY BIRD
Jayson Tatum was the third overall draft pick for the Boston Celtics in 2017 and has since blossomed into one of the top players of the league, receiving two All-Star nods during his first four seasons. Tatum has improved his scoring with each season, and collected a new career-high in points on Friday night, dropping 53 during an overtime win over Minnesota. He continues to validate the front office’s belief in him as their franchise player that rewarded him with a total 6y/$173M deal.
At only 23 years of age and with the promise Tatum has shown, he has the potential to be the best player to ever wear a Celtics jersey since Larry Bird himself. He has the promise to become a bigger name in Boston than players like Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo. With already two All-Star seasons at such a young age, and now racking up 25.1 PPG in just his fourth NBA season, it’s difficult to doubt what Tatum can obtain as part of one of the most storied franchises in sports.
In order to be considered on the same pedestal, or even possibly a higher one, Tatum will have to win titles for a town that expects titles, or MVP awards to validate himself amongst his peers. If Tatum ends his career missing titles and personal awards, the people of Boston and critics will look at his time in the league as one that was underwhelming. He certainly has the talent and skillset to be the best Celtic since Larry Bird, but it will all come down to whether he can add those exclusive pieces hardware to his trophy case.
CHRIS BOUCHER IS THE BEST BENCH BIG MAN IN THE NBA
Chris Boucher was given an opportunity to prove himself this season, and he has done just that. The Raps forward/center has played 51 games for them this season but has only started six times. He’s averaging 23.3 minutes per game, and tallying 13.3 points and 6.3 rebounds in those minutes, good for 20.5 points and 9.7 rebounds per 36 minutes this season. Boucher was given exactly 36 minutes of playtime against Chicago with De’Andre Bembry out and had the best game of his career.
Without Kyle Lowry or Fred VanVleet playing vs. Chicago, Boucher set career-highs in points (38), rebounds (19), offensive rebounds (9), field goals made (14), and minutes played (36). Thursday night showed everyone his potential in this league as a starter, and with continued improvement, there is no reason he can’t be an above-average starter at Center for Toronto going forward.
Boucher has really come into his own this season, developing into an important piece for this squad in 2020-21 that he was a bench warmer for when they won the championship a couple of seasons ago. He is the single-most efficient player for the Raps this season and leads the team in blocks (4th most in the NBA).
He’s been given more opportunities to prove himself recently due to suspensions, COVID, and injury-related issues Toronto has been dealing with, and he’s seized the moment while proving himself as the NBA’s best bench big man.
CHRIS PAUL IS THE REAL MVP OF THE PHOENIX SUNS
The Phoenix Suns matched up against the Utah Jazz on Wednesday night in a matchup of the top teams in the Western Conference, and the game lived up to the hype. Phoenix outlasted Utah 117-113 in overtime. Devin Booker led the team with 35 points, but it was Chris Paul who really shined once again when they needed him.
Chris Paul tallied 29 points and nine assists on 12-24 shooting and 3-7 from beyond the arc. It took Booker seven more shots and eight more free throws to score just six more points than Paul did. Additionally, Paul had the highest +/- on the team at +17, while Booker was seventh on the team in this category at +0. More importantly, it was CP3 who was consistently draining shots down the stretch and put the game away with two clutch free throws in OT while Booker’s sole missed FTA on the night gave Utah life.
This goes to show that although Booker scores more points throughout the game, Paul is the true catalyst of this Phoenix squad. The 35-year-old turned a team that hadn’t made the playoffs for an entire decade into a top-2 seed in the loaded Western Conference. This is a roster that hasn’t seen major improvements in recent years, but with the addition of Chris Paul, is now a force to be reckoned with. The leadership, IQ, and clutch play Paul has brought to this squad is the reason he is Phoenix’s real MVP.
GOLDEN STATE’S ONLY CHANCE AT SURVIVAL IS WITH SUPER STEPH DOWN THE STRETCH
The Golden State Warriors currently sit in 10th place amongst the Western Conference standings. This is not a position this franchise is accustomed to being in given their recent success, especially with only 21 games left in the season. In this abnormal year, 10th is enough to earn them a play-in opportunity, but Golden State is not satisfied with that.
If they are going to turn their season around and climb up the rankings, a lot of the weight will be on the shoulders of the greatest shooter ever, Steph Curry. Unsurprisingly, much of this team’s success rides on Curry to put together consistent performances. This roster is one of the weaker Warriors ones in recent years given the departure of Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, and the injury to Klay Thompson, but with Curry playing at his peak, anything is possible.
Curry had 41 points against Milwaukee on Tuesday night, 30 of which came in the second half. He shot 50% from three and 66.7% from the field. This was still barely enough to come out with the dub. Chef Curry will have to put together many more of these kinds of ridiculous stat lines to pull his team up the standings and position his squad better come postseason time. Similar to James Harden’s historic run in January 2019 and LeBron during the 2018 playoffs, this next month or two will define how ‘super’ Steph really is.
GM SEAN MARKS HAS COMPLETELY TRANSFORMED BROOKLYN IN HALF A DECADE
Sean Marks, the general manager of the Brooklyn Nets, has turned Brooklyn into the odds-on favorites to win the NBA Finals this season from the bottom of the league just a few years ago. Four seasons ago, Brooklyn’s team was highlighted by Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Brook Lopez. Marks has taken this roster and transformed it into a title-favorite in a span of only four seasons.
Now, the squad consists of top players like Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, along with a supporting cast of Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge. This is a team full of big names, and Marks was able to put together a roster of all of them. Not only did he add all these talented pieces, but the squad plays well together too. Brooklyn currently boasts a 35-16 record, which is top of the Eastern Conference, and they’ve done so while dealing with plenty of adversity and absences along with a first-year Head Coach.
Marks’ masterpiece is also the new team of New York now. In Monday’s clash with the Knicks, Brooklyn secured the victory without star players Kevin Durant and James Harden, as Kyrie dropped 40 to pull out the win and complete the inner-city sweep. Whether Brooklyn wins it all this year or not, the impact and influence of Sean Marks can’t be understated as he’s constructed possibly the most talented roster of all-time and should be the unanimous Executive of the Year.
LONZO BALL’S DEVELOPED JUMPER IS ELEVATING HIS GAME TO THE NEXT LEVEL
Before Lonzo Ball was drafted to the Los Angeles Lakers, skeptics were worried about his weird jump-shot form and whether or not that would translate to the NBA game. Early in his career, the critics seemed to be right. Ball shot an abysmal 30.5% from the three-point line in his rookie season, and 36% from the field, not to mention his Shaq-esque 45.1% free throw percentage.
Since his rookie year, Ball has improved his three-point percentage by 8%, his two-point percentage by 7.7%, his overall shooting percentage by 6.5%, and his free-throw percentage by a staggering 31.6%. Ball has been proving his haters wrong as he has continued to develop, and has shown that he can have an effective jump shot that makes him a threat in all aspects of the game. His improvements were on full display during Sunday night’s clash with Houston.
Ball made eight three pointers, which is his career-high. He also tallied nine assists, making him the first player in franchise history to make 8+ three-pointers and record 8+ assists in the same game. This is even more impressive considering it was his first game back since March 18th because of a hip injury. It seemed like that time away from the game may have unlocked something. Ball’s tired of his jump-shot critics, and used that energy as motivation to improve his stroke and become an all-around weapon on the court.
KAT IS DONE WITH BEING LABELED AS “SOFT”
Karl-Anthony Towns put together an all-around dominant performance in Saturday night’s clash with Philadelphia. He did this against the league’s best Center, Joel Embiid, who returned from injury after missing ten games due to a bone bruise in his left knee. KAT shot better from the field and three-point line, as well as had more points, rebounds, and assists than Embiid did as the clear top performer in the game. On top of all this, he threw down a monster jam right on Embiid’s head.
In recent matchups between the two, there have been some heated exchanges, including ejections. They’ve even beefed on social media. Now, these interactions have only been occurring in recent years, and it is probable that the fire was lit by an ex-teammate of them both, Jimmy Butler.
Jimmy Butler notoriously left Minnesota after calling KAT and the rest of the team “soft” and ended up in Philly with Embiid. Butler and Embiid quickly became good buddies, and since this friendship, Embiid and KAT’s beef has taken off from there as Butler likely got Embiid on the “KAT is soft” train. KAT showed on Saturday that he’s clearly tired of this label, as represented by his performance over the league’s best Center on Saturday night, as well as his emphatic slam that nobody “soft” could accomplish.
KAT’s mentality has changed massively since teaming up with Butler, and he’s on a vengeance tour to show off his new mindset. It’s only a matter of time before the Wolves turn into a contender once D-Lo comes back healthy and Towns can prove he’s about it when it matters in the postseason.
ROBERT WILLIAMS III IS SHINING AS THE STARTING CENTER IN BOSTON
Robert Williams III has developed into a very effective and efficient performer for Boston this season. For the majority of the season, BOS started Daniel Theis at the Center spot, and Williams was getting solid backup minutes. Since Theis went to Chicago, Williams has emerged as the starter in his place, at least while Tristan Thompson remains out. TT might not get the starting job even upon his return since the “Time Lord” has done a great job, and is really coming into his own as potential core player for the Celtics.
During Friday’s outing against Houston, Williams posted an impressive stat line of 20 points, his career-high, nine rebounds, and eight assists, which was also a career-high. He was one rebound and two assists shy from a triple-double. Not only was he effective in almost all aspects of the game, he also shot a perfect 9-9 from the field, showing how efficient of a player he can be in this offense catching lobs, getting put-backs, and being a menace down in the paint.
To trade away Theis, the Celtics must’ve had faith in Williams’ ability to step up, not just in the future, but right now. That assumption is proving to be a good one so far, as he has demonstrated that he can be a valuable contributor to a contending Celtics team with high-quality play on both sides of the ball.
At just 23 years old, he gives this already promising young core another piece that can help get them over the top in the coming years once they all reach their peak. If he continues to develop, there is no reason to believe he can’t be this team’s starting Center for the foreseeable future.
NEW ORLEANS PELICANS HAVE FAILED TO LIVE UP TO THE HYPE THUS FAR
The New Orleans Pelicans squad currently sits in 12th place in the Western Conference standings. This is a team who is not living up to the expectations they had entering the season. A loss on Thursday night to a weaker Orlando team adds to the disappointment they’ve had in 2020-21. 1.5 games behind the 10th place play-in spot was not where this team pictured themselves being with over 50 games in the books.
This NOLA roster is not one that lacks talent by any means. The Pelicans are composed of players like Zion Williamson, who is averaging 26.4 points per game, Brandon Ingram at 23.8 points per game, Lonzo Ball, Steven Adams, Josh Hart, and Eric Bledsoe, who are all above-average NBA players. This roster is very capable of making the playoffs, and should be expected to, considering their star talent and quality depth.
Williamson is in the top-10 in PPG this season, and for a player of his caliber to not even make the play-in game would be disappointing for his young career and not ideal for the NBA either. Their loss to Orlando was just one of the many discouraging losses this team has had this season, as it has been a recurring issue.
Their consistent lack of defense makes it seem like there doesn’t appear to be a light at the end of the tunnel for this season’s chances. Something needs to change for this program to turn it around and make the play-in tournament, setting the tone for what could be a very promising 2020s decade.
THIS EASTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF RACE IS POISED TO BE AS EXCITING AS EVER
The Eastern Conference standings are looking a lot different than what many expected over halfway through the 2020-21 NBA season. Additionally, a large chunk of teams aren’t separated by much. The 4-8 spots are currently separated by 1.5 games total. This year is more important than any to fight for a top-six spot and not get stuck in seventh or eighth. This is because with the shortened season due to COVID, the ninth and tenth spots will have a chance to beat those last two seeds to make it to the playoffs.
The teams who finish seventh and eighth based on win percentage will play a game to decide who gets the seventh seed. The loser will play the winner of a ninth vs. tenth seeded game, and the winner of that will capture the final spot, the eighth seed, in the playoffs. With so many teams so close together, and more shots at a playoff spot up for grabs, it is shaping up to be one of the most exciting playoff races ever seen.
Also, there are many teams in surprising spots right now. Charlotte is currently in fourth, which means they would actually have home-court advantage in the first round. The defending conference champs, the Heat, are in fifth after missing Jimmy Butler early in the season. New York, a laughing stock in recent years, are currently sixth and safe from the play-in tournament. Most shockingly is Boston, who was considered to be a top team in the preseason, are in eighth, and would have to earn their spot via the play-in tourney.
A CLIPPERS FIRST ROUND EXIT IS NOT AS UNREASONABLE AS ONE MAY THINK
The LA Clippers, led by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, might be too highly regarded when it comes to the Western Conference title race. Vegas odds currently have them as the second most likely team to win it, behind their rival Lakers. The Clips sit in 3rd in the West as of now, behind Phoenix and Utah.
LA blew a 16-point lead without Paul George on Tuesday night at home to a Magic team that essentially traded away all of their key players at the NBA trade deadline. This is a very concerning look for a team that has title aspirations, even if it is on a back-to-back after beating the Bucks. It further shows their inconsistencies, lack of focus, and non-existent continuity.
If the NBA playoffs were to start today, LA would matchup with Portland. Portland recently got back their star guard CJ McCollum from injury, and have won six out of eight with him back in the lineup along with Jusuf Nurkic’s return and now the addition of Norman Powell. A backcourt of CJ and Damian Lillard is one that is dangerous and has proven they can make a playoff run, as they did when they made the Conference Finals during the most recent full regular season.
The Clips looked extremely vulnerable Tuesday night against a poor Orlando squad, and in a tougher Western Conference, a first-round exit is not a ridiculous thought. It is fair to consider teams like Utah, Denver, Portland, and the reigning champion Lakers as more threatening, considering the Clippers’ history of blowing leads (as they did once again vs. Orlando). Until LA can prove their choking habits are behind them, a fierce Western Conference could have them ousted earlier than people may realize.
RUSSELL WESTBROOK IS THE GREATEST TRIPLE-DOUBLE MACHINE IN NBA HISTORY
Russell Westbrook had himself a night to remember against Indiana on Monday. The guard tallied 35 points, a season-high 21 assists, and 14 rebounds. This marked the first ever 35+ point, 20+ assist triple-double in NBA history. He also broke Washington’s franchise record for triple-doubles with his 16th, and has only played 37 games in their uniform.
There are stats to back up the claim that Westbrook is the greatest triple-double machine ever. He holds the record for most T-D’s in a single season, which was 42 during his 2016-17 MVP campaign. He put up a triple-double in over half of his games during that magical season. He surpassed a record held by Oscar Roberston since the 1961-62 season that stood for 55 years! Additionally, he holds two of the top three single season triple-double records, as well as three of the top seven.
In regards to all-time, he currently sits in second place, 20 behind the great Oscar Roberston. Westbrook is currently 32 years of age, and has shown no signs of slowing down. He already has 16 this season alone, in just 37 games. He is averaging a triple-double this season, for the fourth time in his career while Robertson’s 61-62 season is the only other time a player has done that.
Assuming Russ continues his dominance, there is no reason to believe he shouldn’t pass Robertson on the all-time leaderboard early next season. These incredible stats show Westbrook’s excellent level of production as the greatest to ever do it when it comes to contributing in all facets of the game at a high level and record that illustrious triple-double.
CHRIS PAUL IS THE GREATEST PASSER OF THE 21ST CENTURY
Chris Paul had the first-ever game in his 1,063-game career in which he did not register at least 2 assists, which is absolutely crazy to think about. Paul has not had a single game since 2005 without multiple assists. That was 16 years ago! As this streak ends, it is time to give him the respect he deserves, and that is the recognition of being the greatest passer of this century.
Since 2005, Chris Paul’s lowest assists per game in a single season was 6.7. He was the league’s assists leader four times during his career, tied with Steve Nash for the most during that time frame. Rajon Rondo had three assist titles during Paul’s career. CP3 has averaged a double-double in six seasons, and at age 35, nearly 36, he is fifth in the league in APG.
From his early years in New Orleans, his lob city years in LA, to his new challenge in Phoenix, Paul has been consistently dishing assists at a high clip. His ability to have such impressive assist totals on teams with non-exceptional supporting casts for the large majority of his career adds to his legacy. The end of this career-long streak calls for some appreciation for the best passer of the 21st century.
5 MAIN TAKEAWAYS FROM THE 2021 NBA TRADE DEADLINE
The closing hours of the NBA trade deadline was a hectic one, with trades happening every few minutes it seemed. Some teams stood out as winners of the day, and some not so much. Additionally, some teams made it clear that they were in win-now mode, and some are in full-rebuild mode as they focus on the future.
1. Houston Rockets botched the James Harden trade: Houston gave away Victor Oladipo to Miami, making it clear that a full rebuild is now in store. This trade looked quite poor for Houston, as it showed what they really got from James Harden. Essentially, they got future draft picks. No key player came to Houston for good as a result of this trade. They messed up greatly as they had a chance to land Ben Simmons or Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, plus picks, and ended up with about 20 games from Oladipo, Kelly Olynyk, Avery Bradley, and some draft picks, for superstar James Harden.
2. No title contender got better at the deadline than Denver: Denver made big waves on Thursday, as they were clearly trying to improve their current roster with bigger names with the West wide open after LeBron & AD’s injuries. They were able to get Aaron Gordon, and only lost an injured Gary Harris, unproven RJ Hampton, and a 2025 draft pick. Additionally, they picked up JaVale McGee from Cleveland. No title contender improved their roster more on deadline day than Denver did.
3. Miami Heat will be the #1 free agent destination this summer: Like Denver, Miami made it clear that they are in win-now mode. They traded for Victor Oladipo, and greatly enhanced their starting lineup. MIA now has a great core of established veterans with Jimmy Butler, Victor Oladipo, and Goran Dragic, along with a promising young group of Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson. Miami will be a top destination for free agents this summer with significant cap space in South Beach.
4. OKC is building the biggest stockpile of draft picks ever seen before: It has been known for a while now that Oklahoma City wants to rebuild, and they’re getting all the future assets they can. The Thunder have made trades over the past couple of years that leave them with the biggest stockpile of draft picks that any team has ever seen before. With their draft capital, the Thunder are in a great position to become competitive in the future and it’d be a surprise if they’re not competing on a perennial basis in 5-10 years.
5. Chicago’s rebuild is over, it’s time to compete again in the Windy City: Chicago showed the rest of the NBA that they wanted to compete again. Chicago gave up some of their youth and draft picks for a proven All-Star in Nikola Vucevic. The team clearly wants to pair him with Zach Lavine in hopes of doing some damage in the Eastern Conference instead of continuing their rebuild and focus on developing young talent. Chicago also secured more Center depth with the addition of Daniel Theis via trade with Boston.
NO NBA PLAYER HAS OVERCOME ADVERSITY LIKE CARIS LEVERT
Caris LeVert was recently traded to the Indiana Pacers this season, when the medical team discovered a small mass on his kidney. Unfortunately, this mass turned out to be cancerous and had to be given serious medical attention. LeVert finally returned to action this month and is quickly gaining back his old form. He had a signature performance against Detroit on Wednesday with a lethal dagger step-back to seal the win against Indy’s division-rival.
LeVert has shown that he can be an efficient scorer in this league, but something always seems to get in the way. Other than the cancerous kidney mass, LeVert was sidelined in 2018 with a right foot dislocation and fell to #20 in the draft because of knee injuries. He’s shown signs that he can be a prolific scorer but is constantly set back. The way he continues to battle through adversity and always comes back to find success is a testament to the kind of player he is, and more importantly, the kind of person he is.
The trade to Indiana might finally be the opportunity LeVert needed to showcase his entire skillset. He is now in a similar situation that Victor Oladipo was in with Indiana. He’s a starting guard who can go get a bucket when he needs to and has put the team on his back before. Oladipo thrived in this system, even earning All-Star status, and if LeVert can stay healthy, there is strong reason to believe the 26-year-old Michigan alum can overcome adversity once again to reach that high level of success like only he has.
GETTING THE COVID VACCINE MAY HAVE CONTRIBUTED TO PORTLAND COMING UP SHORT
The NBA is encouraging the players and staff to get their COVID vaccinations, and are even lifting restrictions on what players can and can’t do if they have the vaccine. The Portland Trail Blazers were one of the first teams to get their first dose, and had to turn around and play the Finals favorites 24 hours later, which could contributed to an uncharacteristic poor crunch-time performance from Mr. Clutch himself, Damian Lillard.
Lillard and the Blazers were in a great spot to beat Brooklyn on Tuesday night, who were without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. However, the one man on this team, or maybe in the entire league, that comes up big in the clutch time and time again to lift his team to victories did not do so, and the entire team fell short as a result. Lillard went 0-2 from the field with two turnovers in the final 5:30 of the game.
These negative outcomes late in the game are very unlike Lillard, and it may be reasonable to think that playing an NBA game just 24 hours after receiving the vaccine could have had something to do with it. As more teams begin to get the vaccine, it may be reasonable for the NBA to implement a safety protocol that prohibits teams from playing the day of or the day after receiving the vaccine.
It will be interesting to see if this could affect any other teams in the future, but it’s a noteworthy development nonetheless considering it might have turned out to be the kryptonite for the NBA’s most heroic player.
THE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR RACE IS BACK TO BEING WIDE OPEN
LaMelo Ball recently suffered a severe wrist injury, which has ruled him out for the rest of the season. Ball has had a sensational debut season in the NBA, and was the clear favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award until he recently suffered a season-ending injury. Ball, the third overall pick of the last draft, had helped the Hornets off to a surprising .500 record, which currently has them sitting at the 6th spot in the Eastern Conference.
With LaMelo Ball out for the rest of the season, the award that seemed to be the most secure is now up for grabs just like the rest o the NBA awards (MVP, DPOY, COY, and MIP). With LaMelo missing the rest of the season, Vegas has announced a new odds-on favorite, and that is Anthony Edwards of the Minnesota Timberwolves, who was the first overall pick in the 2020 draft class.
Next to Edwards, the other man with a legitimate chance of claiming this award is Tyrese Haliburton of the Sacramento Kings. Haliburton was the 12th overall pick of the draft, falling well behind counterparts Edwards and Ball. In the first night of action without LaMelo, Haliburton had 28 points in a win over the Cavs, and showed he can win rookie of the year.
It’s no secret that the Kings will be sellers at the deadline, and if Sacramento ends up moving on from Buddy Hield and/or Harrison Barnes, it will open up even more opportunities for Haliburton to shine and claim what was once the locked-up 2020-21 ROY award away from LaMelo Ball, who will miss a total of 31 games this year when it’s all said and done.
LEBRON & AD’S INJURIES WILL FORCE THE CHAMPS TO GO THROUGH THE GAUNTLET
The Lakers got their first taste of life without their star players on Sunday night in a matchup against the Suns. LeBron James missed the game due to a recent ankle injury, and Anthony Davis, who has been out for weeks already, missed another game due to a calf strain. The Suns, currently second place in the Western Conference, handled business against the depleted Lakers, as they went on to win by 17.
These injuries have the potential to drop the Lakers down the Western Conference standings (currently in third). The Lakers are only 1 game ahead of the Clippers in fourth, and 2.5 games ahead of the fifth place Nuggets and sixth place Trail Blazers, and after tonight’s performance, it is not hard to see them falling down the standings in the near future.
This will limit the Lakers chances of postseason success this year even if both of their star players are healthy by the time May comes around, as falling out of the top four would pin them against one of the Western Conference powerhouses this season in just the first round of the playoffs. They could potentially match up with impressive teams like the Jazz, Blazers, Clippers, or Nuggets, which would make for an extremely competitive first round series, given Lebron and AD are healthy.
A first-round series like this would really put LeBron’s greatness to the test and force the team to go through the gauntlet in the West in all three rounds. LA was able to land the No.1 seed last year and benefitted from facing an injured Blazers team in Round 1 and a Rockets team in Round 2 that lacked continuity. This year will be much tougher with the Suns being the only top-5 team in the West that has no recent track record of playoff success.
JORDAN POOLE CAN BE A KEY PLAYER FOR THE WARRIORS LONG-TERM
Despite the Warriors’ loss Saturday night in a close battle with the Grizzlies, there was something good the team could take away, and that was the performance of Jordan Poole. Poole had 25 points in Friday’s outing against the Grizzlies and came back with 26 on Saturday night.
Poole has assumed the starting role since the absence of star guard Stephen Curry, who is out with a bruised tailbone temporarily. However, Poole continues to show that his valuable contributions don’t have to be a short-term thing. Even before Curry went down, Poole’s has emerged into a standout player for the team and has played the most minutes per game of any other Warriors player in the two-game span.
Poole’s outburst wasn’t necessarily expected, as he actually started 11 games for the Warriors’ G-League team this season. He took that opportunity to showcase his skills and proved to be one of the best players in the G-League, where he was averaging 22.4 PPG this season. The 2019 1st Rd pick out of Michigan is proving that he belongs in the league, and can actually play a huge role for this team moving forward, even with players like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson healthy.
IT’S ABOUT DAME TIME TO PUT LILLARD IN THE MVP CONVERSATION
Damian Lillard had a game-high 36 points in Thursday night’s 101-93 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans. Lillard is having a sensational season, averaging 30.5 PPG, which is the second-highest in the entire league this season. Additionally, Dame is top-10 in assists per game this season as well.
Lillard has his team 6th in the Western Conference, just 5.5 games back of the leader. This impressive record had been achieved mostly without star teammate CJ McCollum. This level of production, Dame Time’s constant heroics, and Portland’s position in the West has to put Lillard in the MVP conversation.
The Vegas odds currently have him behind PG counterparts Luka Doncic and Stephen Curry. Lillard’s stock deserves to be higher than any guard in the league considering he’s putting the ball in the basket more than any of them (besides Bradley Beal on a non-playoff Wizards team), leads the NBA in basically every clutch category, and has carried the Blazers to a playoff spot despite his two most valuable teammates missing a large portion of the season. Even Doncic himself said Lillard deserved to be a starter over him in this year’s All-Star game.
Like Jimmy Butler recently, Damian Lillard has put the league on notice following his consistent performances, and it is time he gets the recognition he deserves. Lillard’s MVP case has a strong argument, but it is not talked about nearly enough due to Portland being a small-market team. It would be no surprise if Lillard finishes as a top-3 or top-5 candidate for the MVP by the end of the season. What more can Dame do to be part of the conversation?
ALL EYES ON HOUSTON WITH THE TRADE DEADLINE AROUND THE CORNER
After Wednesday’s defeat to the Golden State Warriors, the Houston Rockets have now lost a staggering 18 games in a row. In the last calendar year, the Rockets have traded away three of their best players, including big names like James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and most recently, P.J. Tucker. It is clear that Houston is open for business before the trade deadline, in hopes of securing a brighter future.
Houston’s March 17th trade of P.J. Tucker to the Milwaukee Bucks was another example of where the Rockets are at in their pursuit to flip valuable veterans for future draft picks. It is apparent that the Rockets’ front office will be taking plenty of phone calls with negotiations ready and an abundance of interested parties considering their list of potential trade candidates includes valuable contributors like Victor Oladipo, Eric Gordon, Sterling Brown, David Nwaba, and now D.J. Augustin as well.
The Rockets have gone from a conference finalist to one of the league’s worst in just three short years. They parted ways with the head coach who led them to the conference finals in hopes of new beginnings. Houston is now forced into desperation mode because of past trades that have not worked out.
The roster they have now is not one that can make a playoff run, so they are trying to make up for lost time by securing future draft picks. The Rockets will now try to rebuild through the draft and find players that mesh with their young talent, like Christian Wood and Kevin Porter Jr..
JIMMY BUTLER IS EMERGING AS A LEGITIMATE MVP CANDIDATE
The Miami Heat’s 113-98 victory on Tuesday night over the Cleveland Cavaliers marked their fifth win in a row and their ninth in their last ten games. This winning spree has them sitting in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, poised for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The recent success of the Heat is largely due to the return of their star player Jimmy Butler.
The Heat’s success is making a strong case for Butler to elevate into an MVP candidate and a serious one at that. Butler’s supporting cast is full of younger, inexperienced players like Tyler Herro, Bam Adebayo, Duncan Robinson, and Kendrick Nunn. Butler is clearly a great leader and mentor for these young players, as he led them to the Finals last year, and has them in a great position again this year, set for another deep playoff run.
Butler is averaging 21.4 PPG, 7.4 rebounds, and 8.0 assists while shooting an efficient 46.7% from the field. He does a great job on the defensive end as well, averaging 2.2 steals per game with some timely turnovers throughout the season. He also has a player efficiency rating of 27.2, right behind Damian Lillard for the fifth-highest this year. These display his impressive, well-rounded, and consistent production, and he also has something that can’t be found on a stat sheet.
This would be his hard work and hustle he puts into every possession, both offensively and defensively. There aren’t many guys who play with more heart than Butler does night in and night out. These numbers, along with leading an inexperienced team to one of the East’s top spots shows why Butler has entered himself into the MVP race, and his stock will only rise as the Miami Heat continue to rattle off victories down the stretch.
STEPH CURRY MISSING THE PLAYOFFS COULD HAVE A LASTING IMPACT ON HIS LEGACY
Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors lost in a blowout to the Los Angeles Lakers by a score of 128-97 on Monday night. This loss marks the team’s fifth in their last six games and the Warriors are now currently on the outside looking in when it comes to the Western Conference playoff picture, sitting a game behind the Dallas Mavericks for the No.8 spot.
There is no doubt that Curry will go down as the greatest shooter to ever touch a basketball, but as a 2x MVP and 3x NBA Champion, he has positioned himself to potentially go down as the greatest Point Guard to ever play the game as well. However, if the Warriors finish this season without a playoff berth to show for it, that could severely hurt his all-time argument as it would make the case that Curry has been unable to lead the Warriors to success without the help of stars like Klay Thompson or Kevin Durant alongside him.
If Curry can’t lead this team to the playoffs, it may be hard to argue that he is even the league’s best point guard right NOW. Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers, without the help of an injured CJ McCollum, currently has his team sitting with a 22-16 record as the 6th seed in the West.
Lillard also has the slight edge on PPG, as he is averaging 29.9 compared to Curry’s 29.3, and Lillard is averaging more assists with 7.9 compared to Curry at 6.2. If Curry can’t lead this team to a playoff spot during what may be the sole season he has no other star offensive player beside him, it may be a lot harder to call him the greatest point guard and reduce his individual legacy considering players like LeBron James led less-talented teams all the way to the NBA Finals.
ANTHONY EDWARDS IS ONE OF THE BEST ROOKIE DUNKERS EVER
Minnesota Timberwolves first-overall pick Anthony Edwards had a career-high 34 points in a win against the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday night by a score of 114-112. Two of these 34 points came off a monster jam, which has now become a common sight for the rookie. He’s already had multiple highlight-reel dunks this season.
It is now reasonable to put him in the category of best rookies to ever dunk a ball. Some of his dunks this season put him in with the likes of a rookie Blake Griffin, Vince Carter, and even Michael Jordan. Obviously, this is an elite list of rookie dunkers, but Edwards continues to make a case to be amongst names like these.
The 2020 No.1 pick has been a human highlight reel all year, and he’s just getting started. At only 19 years of age, it is hard to argue that he doesn’t have the potential to be amongst one of the greatest dunkers ever with his elite athleticism, and there is no doubt that the SportsCenter Top Ten plays will be home to more of Edwards’ slams in years to come.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS’ REBUILDING PROCESS IS IN FULL EFFECT
For 22 straight seasons under Gregg Popovich, the Spurs made the postseason. That ended after the shortened 2019-20 season and their old dynasty is now a distant memory. Tim Duncan has been elected to the Hall of Fame, Manu Ginobili will likely soon join him as the greatest 6th man of all-time, and Tony Parker went to Charlotte before calling it a career himself. Not to mention, Kawhi Leonardwas traded to Toronto.
While the greatest coach of all-time is still in Texas, none of the pieces that were a part of their championship run are still there. Patty Mills is the only player on the roster with championship experience as he was a quality backup PG during what might end up being Pop’s final championship season in 2014.
The Spurs added veteran All-Stars such as LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan, and Rudy Gay since then to keep their contending ways alive, while also focusing on what they’ve always focused on: homegrown talent. Duncan, Ginobili, Parker, and Kawhi were all part of Popovich’s Spurs since the day they were drafted. Now that they’re gone, it’s time to draft and develop new players.
For the 2020-21 Spurs, those players are Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson, Lonnie Walker, Derrick White, and 2020 1st Rd Pick Devin Vassell. On Wednesday, the team announced it will be parting ways with LaMarcus Aldridge. DeRozan and Gay are likely next as the Spurs rebuilding process goes into full effect and the NBA’s longest-tenured HC now faces the biggest challenge of his coaching career since fully taking over the role in 1997.
SINCE LEAVING OKC, KD JOINED THE 2 MOST STACKED TEAMS OF ALL-TIME
When Kevin Durant left a title-contender in Oklahoma City to join the 73-9 Warriors that had just eliminated his Thunder in the 2016 WCF, it was considered the weakest move ever by an NBA superstar. KD deciding to leave that juggernaut for New York was respected by his peers much more at the time since it created balance in the NBA again.
However, if they had known the Nets were going to use their assets of draft picks, young players, and cap space to then add 9x All-Star James Harden and 6x All-Star Blake Griffin to pair with the already premier duo in the Eastern Conference of 7x All-Star Kyrie Irving and 11x All-Star Durant, it likely would’ve led to even more criticism. Just two years after the Warriors dynasty ended, the new-look Nets might have built a better lineup than even Golden State had with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, and a hampered DeMarcus Cousins.
Championships have become a major factor in a player’s overall legacy which is why top players have joined loaded rosters as they go ring chasing. Nobody can better exemplify that now than KD himself. From joining what would’ve been considered the greatest team of all-time in 2016 (had it not been for Draymond’s suspension or Steph/Iggy’s nagging injuries, or Barnes‘ historically awful shooting) to now forming a new superteam in Brooklyn, KD is the new face of this generation’s new option to take the easy path.
It doesn’t mean those championships aren’t legitimate. They still have to win 16 playoff games like everyone else. However, basketball is a TEAM sport. Crediting ONE player significantly because he’s on a stacked roster doesn’t make much sense. So in this era of “who’s greater,” the fact that Durant won 0 championships while playing alongside 1 Hall of Famer (Russell Westbrook) will be taken into account if the only time he won a title was while playing on one of two most stacked teams of all-time.
PRIME DESTINATIONS FOR 6X ALL-STAR PF BLAKE GRIFFIN
On Friday, the Detroit Pistons and Blake Griffin officially agreed on a buyout for the former 6x All-Star. While Griffin surely isn’t the same All-Star caliber player he used to be, the former No.1 overall pick has evolved his game and become a threat from deep as he’s making 2.0 3PM per game this season.
Considering the lack of prominent players on expiring deals and household names looking for new teams, Griffin might be the most well-known player moved before the upcoming trade deadline.
The buyout was really the only option Detroit had when they began sitting Griffin, and it helped DET save money, while providing the former No.1 pick with a chance to play for a contender.
After spending most of his career with the Los Angeles Clippers, Griffin has yet to play in a Conference Finals and has publicly shared his interest in contending for a Championship. There are a lot of factors to consider, but with that being said, here are the prime destinations for Griffin after being bought out and on the free-agent market:
JRUE HOLIDAY IS THE REASON MILWAUKEE IS AS DANGEROUS AS EVER
When Milwaukee gave up a lofty amount of picks for Jrue Holiday over the offseason, it served multiple purposes. The biggest one was to convince its all-world talent Giannis Antetokounmpo to sign with the Bucks long-term. Giving up Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, and those future assets have already paid off because the Greek Freak signed his max extension and ensured MIL will be contending for years to come as long as he stays healthy.
The other main purpose of trading for Jrue Holiday was to add a standout two-way player who is the perfect fit to play alongside Giannis and Khris Middleton as an All-NBA caliber defender with an offensive skillset that’s capable of basically anything on a basketball court.
What has prevented the Bucks from turning regular-season No.1 seeds into Eastern Conference championships has been the team’s inability to perform as well in close games during late situations. It almost took an insurmountable 3-0 series lead over Kawhi‘s Raptors in 2019 but failed to hold on to multiple leads in a 2OT classic that swung the entire series.
Then against Miami in 2020, Game 1 was a one-point game with five minutes left before Jimmy Butler put the team on his back and Giannis couldn’t do the same. Game 2 came down to the wire where Milwaukee came up short again. The Bucks held a one-point lead with 4:20 left in Game 3 before collapsing for the third straight time.
Milwaukee needs to improve in these critical situations that decide champions and Jrue Holiday proved on Thursday once again, he’s the perfect man for the job. He answered Ja Morant‘s go-ahead layup with a game-winner of his own that gave the Bucks some momentum entering the All-Star Break as they’ve won six of their last seven games. Holiday will be huge for the Bucks as he’s not only a proven scorer in crunch time like Middleton, but he can also prevent the other team’s best playmaker from rising to the occasion themselves.
The reigning 2x MVP will always be the face of the team, the most productive player throughout the game, and receive the majority of the credit/blame. However, the addition of Jrue Holiday can make the difference in those season-changing moments that have decided the Bucks’ fortune in recent years and showed he can be relied upon to get the job done when it matters most.
HAWKS CAN FINALLY REACH THEIR POTENTIAL WITHOUT LLOYD PIERCE
The Atlanta Hawks entered the 2020-21 season with playoff expectations for the first time since Mike Budenholzer’s departure. After a rebuilding period, the Hawks finally have a roster in place that’s built for contention. Not in the future, but for right now. GM Travis Schlenk made the most aggressive moves of his four-year tenure thus far by signing Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, and Rajon Rondo as part of a free-agent frenzy when most teams were being conservative amidst an economic crisis.
Atlanta has benefitted from drafting about as well as any team in the league over the last four years by adding De’Andre Hunter (4th overall), Trae Young (5th), John Collins (19th), Kevin Huerter (19th), and Cam Reddish (10th) to an extremely promising young core. Considering their quick adjustments to the league and Young’s immediate All-Star caliber impact, it was time to turn potential into production.
After starting the season 10-9, it seemed like ATL’s moves were working and this was the season the Hawks would make the playoffs for the first time in four years. However, they then fell to 14-20 and fired Lloyd Pierce due to the team’s struggles.
The Hawks would consistently hold second-half leads or be up in the fourth quarter but then consistently fail to deliver during ‘winning time’. That usually falls on the team’s star player (or lack thereof) and/or Head Coach for not putting the team in a position to succeed in those situations. Considering Ice Trae’s scoring prowess and proven ability to hit big shots, it was likely more of an indictment on the coaching staff than the star PG.
After firing Pierce, the Hawks have now won two in a row and pulled off a 19-point comeback victory over Orlando to enter the All-Star break with plenty of momentum. The rookie HC Pierce had reportedly lost the locker room, and his replacement, Nate McMillan brings a long list of Head Coaching and playing experience that is exactly what this young Hawks team needs.
The top of the Eastern Conference is tough with Philly, Brooklyn, and Milwaukee all having realistic title aspirations this season. While Atlanta is unlikely to come anywhere close to that level this season, their talent should be enough to clinch a spot in the postseason. With Pierce no longer leading the way, the Hawks can finally reach their potential, take the next step this year, and continue their path toward being championship contenders in the foreseeable future.
CLIPPERS CAN ONLY BE CONTENDERS IF THEY GET OVER THEIR CHOKING HABITS
After entering the season as the favorites to win the 2020 NBA Finals and receiving hype as the new Kings of LA, the Clippers ended their season in disastrous fashion. Up 3-1 to the Denver Nuggets, the Clippers blew double-digit leads in three straight games to blow the 3-1 series lead, and a dream LA matchup in the WCF was ruined as Paul George and Kawhi Leonard struggled mightily during crunch time in that series.
LAC fired Doc Rivers, promoting Tyronn Lue in hopes of a culture shift. GM Lawrence Frank replaced Montrezl Harrell with Serge Ibaka, Landry Shamet with Luke Kennard, and JaMychal Green with Nic Batum in hopes of finding the guys that can complete a championship contender. There’s no doubt that the Los Angeles Clippers have the talent to bring this franchise its first title in NBA history.
However, the same core guys are in place and they’re showing similar signs of choking as they did last year. Paul George went 2-10 FG in the 4th quarter of their loss to Milwaukee a few days ago and then followed that up with a 1-9 FG 4th Qtr performance in their defeat Tuesday night vs. Boston. PG13 is shooting 25% FG in clutch situations this season (5-pt game within final 5 minutes) after an abysmal display during those situations in last year’s postseason.
Kawhi Leonard was a late scratch (back spasms) against Boston and has a much better career reputation in big moments. His poor performance in the second half of those final three games vs. Denver can be chalked up as an aberration during unprecedented circumstances in an unpredictable environment. Yet, Leonard’s late struggled have carried over into this season as he owns the fourth-lowest FG% (28%) in clutch situations during 2020-21
This team is built to compete for a championship with two of the best two-way wings in the game, supported by the greatest 6th man of all-time, a proven championship-caliber Big Man, an all-effort point guard stopper, and one of the best benches in the league.
However, their inability to come through when it matters held them back last year and has prevented them from reaching their potential again this season. The Clippers can be legitimate contenders, but their best two players will have to get buckets when it matters and put their choking habits of old in the past to turn that into a reality.
MICHAEL JORDAN’S HORNETS HAVE BECOME THE BEST DRAFTING TEAM IN THE NBA
Michael Jordan‘s ownership tenure with the Hornets has been described as disappointing and underachieving. Once the most dominant player in basketball history, MJ’s post-playing days have been defined by losing in his home state of North Carolina. However, that all seems on the cusp of changing, and a big reason for that is the addition of GM Mitch Kupchak.
After an unsuccessful ending to a legendary run in Los Angeles (5x NBA Champion), the Hornets were able to finally add a proven General Manager to make the basketball decisions and add more championship-DNA to the front office. While his big decisions in LA hadn’t turned the corner yet at the time, Kupchak actually ended his Lakers tenure on a tear.
In 2014, he selected PF Julius Randle with the seventh overall pick (who’s now the second-best player taken in that first round behind only Joel Embiid). Then in 2015, he drafted D’Angelo Russell second overall and stole Larry Nance Jr. with the 27th pick. And to cap it off, he picked Brandon Ingram at second overall in 2016 and then snagged Ivica Zubac during the second round. Five picks in his final three years… five hits.
Kupchak then brought that same drafting expertise with him to Charlotte as he has turned the worst drafting franchise into the best, almost as if he has the Midas touch. He started in 2018 by taking Miles Bridges at 12th overall over the likes of Jerome Robinson, Troy Brown, and Zhaire Smith. While that’s a solid start, no selection in that draft was more impressive than Charlotte’s 34th overall pick of Devonte’ Graham, the only second-round pick that has averaged double-digit points per game.
As an encore, Kupchak took PJ Washington 12th overall with Chuma Okeke, Sekou Doumboiuya, Romeo Langford, and Tyler Herro as the next player’s on the board. Washington’s 42 points are what helped lift Charlotte to a shocking win over Sacramento on Sunday night and he’s become a quality starting player already. Then, his most famous move came four months ago with the addition of LaMelo Ball to be the new face of the franchise after sign-and-trading Kemba Walker away the year prior for Terry Rozier.
Rozier, Graham, Bridges, Washington, and Ball are all 26 years old or younger. Add in a 23-year-old Malik Monk who was inherited by Mitch, and the Hornets have one of the best young cores in the NBA and they’re currently just 1 GB of home-court advantage in the crowded Eastern Conference this season.
As much credit as Mitch Kupchak deserves for turning this Hornets franchise around, Michael Jordan still has the final say on all personnel decisions and has certainly helped construct Charlotte’s promising young roster. The two of them have turned this organization around and deserve to be recognized as the current Kings of drafting in the NBA thanks to their recent three-year track record of success as the only team with FOUR starting-caliber players drafted over the last three years.
JOEL EMBIID IS THE MOST UNSTOPPABLE BIG MAN IN THE NBA
The Philadelphia 76ers entered their Saturday night contest against Cleveland sporting the best total record and home record in the Eastern Conference. Despite another monster performance from Joel Embiid (42 PTS, 13 REB, 6 AST), the Sixers came up short to the Cavs in OT thanks to big games from Collin Sexton and Darius Garland.
While the East’s No.1 team wasn’t able to walk away with the win, they were able to go to sleep knowing they have the most unstoppable big man in the game. Starting at Center in the 2021 All-Star Game, Joel Embiid is the most difficult 7-footer to defend, possibly ever. While he’s not as dominant around the rim as Shaquille O’Neal or as lethal from the 3-point arc as Dirk Nowitzki, Embiid’s versatility is unmatched for anyone his size.
He can punish opponents in the restricted area, give them the Dream Shake in the post, step-back for mid-range buckets, and cash 3’s from outside. Embiid can truly do it all and his offensive prowess would make one think he’s rather one-dimensional, but “The Process” might be even better on the defensive end. Even though Cleveland was able to score in his presence late on Saturday, the former top-3 pick has established a reputation as one of the best rim protectors in the NBA.
Nikola Jokic has deservedly received MVP consideration, but if the season ended today, there’s no doubt it should go to Joel Embiid. He’s leading a No.1 seeded team as the clear-cut best player and can contribute in basically every facet of the game with elite production. His power, shiftiness, and arsenal of skills were on full display vs. the Cavs, and it showed the world why he’s the most unstoppable Big Man in the entire Association.
DRAYMOND GREEN IS THE MOST UNIQUE PLAYER IN THE NBA
The NBA is rich with rare and extraordinary talents in today’s game. Draymond Green is far from the most talented player in the league, but he can certainly be considered the most unique. What the former second-round pick brings to the table is unlike any player that’s ever played the game. While some active players and legends of the past have similar skillsets, nobody is really that close to being like Draymond Green. Let’s break it down.
On the floor, Draymond Green is a walking triple-double threat that literally plays every position 1-5. He can pass it like a Point Guard while being capable of rebounding like a Center. Just that combination alone is rare but every other player that can do both at a high level (Jokic, LeBron, Westbrook, Doncic) can also score at a high level. However, that’s the one part of Draymond’s game that holds him back.
If Green could score, he’d arguably be the best player in the NBA but instead, he’s one of two players that averages more assists per game than points (T.J. McConnell). Only Green and Nikola Jokic are really orchestrating their offense from the Center position, but Draymond is the sole person also anchoring a team’s defense at 6’7″, providing rim protection and perimeter prowess with elite switching ability as shown by the five All-Defensive Team selections and Defensive Player of the Year award already to his name.
Draymond is the ultimate competitor that opponents hate facing while being the type of teammate everyone loves to play with. Refs don’t usually get along with Green’s antics considering his long track record of technicals (and kicking opponents), and even the way he gets away with treating refs is unique.
Green has never been afraid to speak his mind and the Warriors could never be able to replace the 3x NBA Champion with a similar presence who’s a leader on and off the court. Even years after the future Hall of Famer plays his final game, the NBA won’t ever be able to find anyone quite like Draymond Green.
KINGS HAVE THE RIGHT TALENT BUT NEED A CULTURE SHIFT
The Sacramento Kings don’t have a bad team, but they sure are playing like it. After a nine-game losing streak, the Kings own a 12-20 record and are currently in line to land another top-5 pick. They’ve recently used top-5 picks on De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley in hopes of avoiding falling back into that position again, but the Kings squad is almost certainly going to miss the playoffs for the 15th consecutive season after the Peja Stojakovic-led Kings made eight straight postseasons, ending in 2006.
Vlade Divac was a key component to those competitive Kings squads, and was brought in to be the leading personnel decision-maker in Sacramento to bring the capital of California back to glory. However, he hasn’t had much success to show for it. He deserves credit for drafting De’Aaron Fox with the fifth overall pick a few years ago, but selecting Bagley second overall right in front of Luka Doncic at No.3 in 2018 will forever live on as one of the worst draft decisions in NBA history. Despite one of the worst cultures in place, Divac has still put together a competent roster in Sac-Town.
After all, they have as many players (6) scoring in double-digits as the No.1 seeded Jazz this season (t-most in the NBA). The depth chart contains quality starters across the board (Fox, Bagley, Buddy Hield, Harrison Barnes, and Richaun Holmes) who could all be valuable contributors on a championship-caliber club, plus he landed one of the steals in the draft as Tyrese Haliburton is already one of the best, most efficient sixth men in the league with a bright future ahead of him.
While the roster could be a lot better, the real problem seems to lie on the coaching front. Luke Walton was brought in after an unsuccessful three-year tenure in Los Angeles and he’s carried that inability to win over with him across the state to Sacramento. The talent simply isn’t playing as well as the sum of its parts.
Nemanja Bjelica‘s situation is bizarre as a solid player who wants out after seeing his role get diminished. Bogdan Bogdanovic was a key part of the team’s young core but joined a different losing team with nothing to show for it. Hassan Whiteside has had performances this season where he looks like a top-5 Center and then on other nights, he’ll get a Coach’s DNP. Jabari Parker was a top-2 pick and while his NBA career hasn’t been very impressive, it’s shocking to see him only be worthy of playing two games for the worst team in the league.
There are a variety of problems occurring in central-Cali, and it’s now in the spotlight after a nine-game losing streak. Most, if not all of the issues seem to have Luke Walton or Vlade Divac attached, and it appears to be time to try a new management tandem to usher in a fresh culture that can build winning habits.
GM Leon Rose and HC Tom Thibadeau in New York serve as a great template for how SAC can turn this around, but they’ll need to find a respected executive and HC that can lead this franchise back to prominence because the current leaders aren’t getting it done and it’s time for a culture shift in California.
BOSTON CELTICS WILL MAKE A MAJOR MOVE BEFORE THE TRADE DEADLINE
There has been no team more disappointing during the 2020-21 season so far than the Boston Celtics. After making it all the way to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, BOS seemed poised to finally get past the ECF and make a title run this year. After a solid 8-3 start to the season, the C’s now find themselves under .500 (15-17) for the first time after 30 games played since 2015 and have lost three in a row, four of their last five, and eight of their last 11 games.
Notorious deal-maker GM Danny Ainge has put the blame on himself and stated he “do[es] not” believe this is a championship roster… Why would the person in control of the roster for a team with clear championship aspirations say these things publicly? All the signs point to a blockbuster deal going down in Beantown before the trade deadline passes.
When Gordon Hayward departed this past offseason, the Celtics could’ve reportedly landed Myles Turner and a 1st Rd Pick from Indiana in a sign-and-trade, which would’ve represented a fantastic return for a player that could’ve left for nothing.
The deal instead fell apart and Hayward signed with Charlotte, who was over the cap, so they executed a sign-and-trade as well, which gave Boston a monster $28,500,000 trade exception which it can use for up to an entire year. This allows the Celtics to take back salary $28.5M more than the salary it’s giving away, which unlocks almost any possible trade without any cap restrictions. Anybody is on the table for the Celtics.
Boston will still have to give up assets in return, which it should have no problem doing with five first-round picks on its roster from the last three years alone (Robert Williams, Romeo Langford, Grant Williams, Aaron Nesmith, and Payton Pritchard) that could spark a team’s interest looking to rebuild. Considering Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are likely off-limits, their most interesting trade asset could be Kemba Walker.
A former All-Star who’s still just 30 years old, Walker hasn’t played well in New England and it’s hard to think the team can rely on him in the postseason after his poor performance in last year’s playoffs. Kemba Walker is the biggest x-factor in the entire Eastern Conference, as he still shows up with big 30-point nights on occasions, making the Celtics look close to unstoppable with three legit All-Stars, but other nights he struggles to even reach double-digits with extreme inefficiency.
Boston’s top targets could include PF Julius Randle (NYK), F/C John Collins (ATL), G/F Victor Oladipo (HOU), PF Aaron Gordon (ORL), SG Buddy Hield and/or SF Harrison Barnes (SAC), PF Lauri Markannen (CHI), G Lonzo Ball (NOP), or C LaMarcus Aldridge (SAS).
A main factor that Ainge will consider is the fact that their starters have only played 28 total minutes together this season with Kemba missing the beginning of the season and Marcus Smart’s absence having a severe impact on the team recently. They might just hope with a fully healthy squad, they can compete with the Nets, 76ers, and Bucks in the East but their recent losing streak, Danny Ainge’s public comments, and possession of that trade exception all point to a blockbuster deal for Boston this year.
DOMANTAS SABONIS IS THE MOST UNDERRATED PLAYER IN THE NBA
Once the NBA revealed the final reserves for the 2021 All-Star game, all the attention immediately went toward which players missed the cut (as always). While there wasn’t an all-time snub this time like Bradley Beal last year, Domantas Sabonis being left off the list was still unprecedented. He’s the first player in NBA history to record 20+ points, 10+ rebounds, and 5+ assists to not make the All-Star team.
This isn’t the first time Sabonis has been overlooked and it likely won’t be the last. Playing in a small-market like Indiana has forced Sabonis’ greatness to go under the radar on a national scale but Pacers fans have become well accustomed to his phenomenal performances. Just by looking at the 2020-21 NBA Top Performers, it can be understood how consistently effective the Pacers PF has been this year.
He’s a triple-double threat on a nightly basis as one of the few Bigs in the league who’s a true facilitator from the post, has expanded his game beyond the 3-point line this year, and is one of the best rebounders in the league. The 24-year-old is one of the most well-rounded Big Men in the NBA and has improved his production across the board from last year, yet he didn’t earn a second consecutive All-Star appearance for some reason despite elevating his game.
While it’s easy to point out which players SHOULD’VE made the All-Star Team, many times people leave out who they should’ve made it over. With no position limit in place for the reserves like there is for starters, Sabonis could’ve easily made it over G Ben Simmons or G/F Jaylen Brown, who both lack the resume Sabonis has this season. However, Simmons and Brown play in large markets and get credited for their All-Defense, which is the only subpar aspect of Sabonis’ game.
Considering the Gonzaga product has only been in the league for five years, he has plenty of time to turn the narrative around and become more of a household name. Paul George and Reggie Miller were both able to garner the respect of being a top-tier player in Indiana, a state known for hoops. Sabonis was acquired (with Victor Oladipo) for PG13 a few years ago and has developed into a perennial All-Star caliber player who, along with Devin Booker, can now be considered the most underrated player in the NBA.
UTAH JAZZ ARE LOOKING LIKE THE GREATEST 3-PT SHOOTING TEAM OF ALL-TIME
The most surprising team this year has unequivocally been the Utah Jazz. UTA currently holds the best record in the league at 25-6 after exiting the first round in last year’s playoffs. The instant increase in success isn’t because of a big offseason acquisition or coaching change as the Jazz entered with about as much continuity as any team in the league.
The main catalyst for their success has been unprecedented performances from the 3-point line. The Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets really showed the league how effective shooting from beyond the arc can revolutionize the game, and the Jazz are taking it to a whole other level. Their barrage from deep peaked on Monday night with a franchise-record 28 (!) 3PM during their victory over Charlotte.
After dismantling some of the best teams in the league over the last month and a half, it was surprising to see the young Hornets hang in there against the league’s best team through three quarters, but that changed extremely quickly. Similar to the notorious 73-win Warriors in the third quarter, this Jazz team just exploded in the fourth quarter, turning a one-point game into a 20-point lead basically within a few minutes. It’s what makes this Jazz team so dangerous.
Their proficiency from deep is something that could decrease over a larger sample size, but when watching their games, they’re getting open looks, making the right passes, and hitting the shots they should make which is why they’ve consistently made 3’s at a record rate all season.
With Donovan Mitchell leading the show, and solid shooters in Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, Jordan Clarkson, Royce O’Neal, and Mike Conley all around him, it provides a nice set up for Mitchell to run pick-and-roll with Rudy Gobert, leading to an open shot for himself, an easy jam for the Stifle Tower, or requiring additional help from the defense that leaves a shooter wide open.
Utah not only looks like the best team in the league RIGHT NOW but also the greatest 3-point shooting team of ALL-TIME with the facts to prove it.
The credibility of NBA fans when it comes to All-Star voting has been questionable recently, to say the least, which has led to changes in the voting to include more influence from the media and players. Fans currently have 50% of the vote when it comes to All-Star starters with media taking 25% and players owning the other 25%. Coaches vote for the reserves. When media AND players both agree a player is voted higher than the other but the fans have the opposite, the fans vote wins the tiebreaker for some reason.
The new system was mostly successful this year with LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, and Bradley Beal all rightfully earning a starting spot, but still failed when it came to one individual. Last year, it was Beal who was ridiculously snubbed out of an All-Star spot when the players he goes against every night voted for him to be a STARTER. This year, it’s highly unlikely the same level of snub occurs, but it’s still disappointing to see Luka Doncic be named an All-Star starter when Damian Lillard has been much more deserving this season.
When fans are in control, there is a natural unfairness to it with some teams having larger markets and fanbases that leads to more votes for a player, even though they might not be as deserving. Or in this case, Luka Doncic has an entire continent voting for him as a European sensation while Damian Lillard is from Oakland where fans won’t hesitate to vote for Steph Curry first and currently plays in Oregon for a team that isn’t known for having a large fanbase by any means.
Even when looking at the stats, it’s easy to see why Luka was voted an All-Star starter. He’s averaging more AST, REB, and shooting a higher FG% than Lillard. However, Dame has him beat in 3P% and FTM, and is one of the leaders among the entire league in PPG, 3PM, and FT%.
So when the stats show their both consistently performing at a high level, let’s look at how their play has impacted winning. One is playing without his best two teammates for over half the season thus far and led them to six straight wins and a top-four seed in the West while the other has benefitted from a fully healthy squad pretty much but are under .500 and out of the current playoff picture.
That’s because when it comes to winning time, these two players are complete opposites. Damian Lillard is the most clutch player in the NBA and Luka Doncic’s lack of success in the game’s most critical moments continues to hold the Mavs back. It was never more evident than a few days ago when Dame’s Blazers beat Luka’s Mavs after Lillard drained the GW-3PM and Luka failed to tie it on a wide-open look in the final seconds.
There’s also a valid argument James Harden should be an All-Star starter as he’s obviously a top-10 player in the NBA, but it’s understandable he didn’t make it since he’s only been in the Eastern Conference for a month. There’s really no excuse for Luka being named the starter over Lillard other than the fact the fans have too much power when it comes to these results that impact a player’s overall HOF candidacy and basketball legacy. The NBA needs to figure out how to solve this error so the best players are actually correctly represented in the league’s most prestigious game.
WIZARDS ARE STILL VERY MUCH IN THE EAST PLAYOFF RACE
When the Wizards were decimated by COVID and off to the worst record in the NBA, many people counted DC out due to their dismal defense. However, the Wiz are 6-5 over their last 11 games, starting with the near 300-point thriller over Brooklyn. The nation’s capital is playing their best basketball in a while with their first three-game winning streak in over 150 games. They have struggled stringing wins together, but now they boast a victory over Denver, Boston, Miami, and Brooklyn over their last 11 outings.
The Bradley Beal-led squad now sits only three games back from a playoff spot in the East and just two games away from a 10th seed play-in game opportunity. They’ve played the least games in the East so far (9-17) but benefit from a conference that has an 8th seed boasting an impressive 13-15 record.
Despite Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic‘s best efforts to cool down the heating up Wizards, Scott Brooks’ squad is making the right plays when it matters to win games and finally saw Davis Bertans break out of his slump with a career-high 35 points on an efficient 9-11 FG/3PM night. Russell Westbrook chipped in with his seventh triple-double (2nd most in Wizards history) while Rui Hachimura, Alex Len, and Raul Neto were also in double-digits with Neto not missing a single shot (5-5 FG).
This could all end up just being a flash in the pan, but the Wizards have the talent to compete in a weak East with two All-Stars in the backcourt, a rising star in Rui, an elite shooting 6th man, and an offense that’s among the best in the league. If their recent run sparks a buying approach at the trade deadline and WAS can add a premier defender like Myles Turner to their roster, this team could really have a chance to turn a horrendous season into one full of growth, development, and optimism.
Anybody that was watching the Portland Trail Blazers-Oklahoma City Thunder game on Tuesday night knew what was coming. Portland held a double-digit lead until the Thunder stormed back in the fourth quarter. Yet, what happened next has been seen TIME and TIME again. DAME TIME that is.
Damian Lillard only had 19 points at the time Portland was trailing by five points and was in need of a spark before he exploded for 12 points in the final 4:10 to carry the Blazers to victory and keep their now 5-game winning streak alive. OKC is very familiar with the legend of Lillard in the clutch as they were iconically eliminated after he drained a deeeeep game-winner in Game 5 of their playoff series and waved them goodbye.
Lillard was less animated this time around during a regular-season game against one of the worst teams in the league, but OKC quietly has one of the best defensive units in the NBA. Equipped with Lu Dort, Hamidou Diallo, George Hill, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Thunder have a plethora of defensively-gifted Guards but none could stop the inevitable.
Portland’s superstar has made a career of coming through in the clutch. Earlier this season, he memorably drained two huge 3PMs in the final seconds to beat Chicago including his third career buzzer beater, the most in Blazers franchise history. Just last game, he stepped up again when he buried the Mavs with a final-minute step-back Johnson.
He leads the NBA in an abundance of clutch stats, raising his FG% to an astounding 58.1% when the games matter most. There is not a player in the league that is more consistent or effective during the most important possessions of a game than Damian Lillard, and that’s what makes the Blazers as dangerous as any team in the league.
On Monday, the Detroit Pistons announced they will be sitting Blake Griffin for the foreseeable future until they figure out a trade for the former 6x All-Star. The Cleveland Cavaliers are also doing the same thing with Andre Drummond. While Griffin surely isn’t the same All-Star caliber player he used to be, the former No.1 overall pick has evolved his game and become a threat from deep as he’s making 2.0 3PM per game this season.
Considering the lack of prominent players on expiring deals and household names looking for new teams, Griffin might be the most well-known player moved before the upcoming trade deadline. It won’t be easy for Detroit to find a team willing to take on his $37M 2021 salary AND his $39M 2022 player option.
They’ll likely have to ADD assets to the deal instead of receiving them, which isn’t what a rebuilding team wants to do. A buyout is certainly an option, helping DET save money, and providing Griffin with a chance to play for a contender.
After spending most of his career with the Los Angeles Clippers, Griffin has yet to play in a Conference Finals and has publicly shared his interest in contending for a Championship. There are a lot of factors to consider, but with that being said, here are the prime destinations for Griffin whether it be through a trade or after being bought out and on the free-agent market:
ANTHONY DAVIS’ HEALTH IS THE BIGGEST X-FACTOR IN THE NBA THIS SEASON
Before the season began, the Los Angeles Lakers were overwhelming favorites to repeat as NBA champions thanks to their dynamic duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, along with an improved supporting cast that included the additions of C Montrezl Harrell, G Dennis Schroder, and G/F Wes Matthews.
Through over a third of the season, there’s been no reason for that to change as the Lakers have the second-best record in the league and just went on a 7-game winning streak. However, one major cause for concern is the health of Davis, who missed the last two games with Achilles tendinosis and then departed early against the Nuggets after re-aggravating the injury.
The Lakers may be able to stay afloat through the regular season with James carrying the squad, but the postseason is a whole different story. AD’s health is huge for determining the upcoming champion in the NBA.
With the Brow playing at full strength, the Lakers are THE team to beat and will be the Vegas favorites all throughout the postseason. However, if the 27-year-old is unavailable or even 90% as effective as he was in last year’s playoffs, the race becomes WIDE OPEN with an abundance of teams licking their chops at the proposition of an AD-less Lakers squad.
DEVIN BOOKER IS ON THE PATH TO BEING THE GREATEST SUNS PLAYER OF ALL-TIME
Who’s the greatest Suns player of all-time? Most would agree it’s currently 2x NBA MVP Steve Nash with Charles Barkley getting an honorable mention for his MVP and four All-Star seasons in the desert. While it’s too early to tell if Devin Booker ever reaches the MVP heights those Hall of Famers did, he’s already the greatest scorer in Suns history.
Saturday marked the 48th time Booker racked up 35+ points in a game, which is already 15 more than any Suns player in franchise history. The Kentucky hooper is only 24 years old and still has plenty of years to develop his skills and elevate himself amongst the NBA’s elite. Current NBA top-10 player conversations don’t include Booker but he has to take it one step at a time. He was awarded an All-Star bid for the first time in his career last year and is now the leader of a winning team for the first time as a pro this year.
Not many people expect Phoenix to do much damage in the 2021 postseason due to their lack of continuity and playoff experience but Booker has that x-factor trait to him that could help him thrive in that kind of environment if he can manage to find ways to get open and overcome the increased physicality that comes with playoff basketball.
Considering Booker is already the greatest scorer in Suns history, is over halfway there to all-time franchise records just six years in, and continues to get better every year, it seems inevitable the 6’5 Shooting Guard from Michigan will one day be considered the Suns GOAT.
He still has PLENTY to accomplish to make that a reality but one run to the NBA Finals or one season where he puts up 30+ PPG (like he’s done over various stretches in his career) could be enough to win MVP and increase his case further. There’s an argument Devin Booker is already on the Suns’ Mount Rushmore even if he got traded tomorrow, and with a winning squad finally now that he has high-quality teammates in Phoenix like Chris Paul, DeAndre Ayton, and Mikal Bridges, he should be around for a long time.
Booker’s biggest reference in culture was when Drake shouted him out on “Sicko Mode,” saying he’s “Wet like I’m Book.” Like Drake also exclaimed in one of his other songs, he’s top-5, top-5, top-5 before clarifying that he’s not top-5, he’s actually top-2, and not 2. That appears to be a similar representation of Booker’s rise among the all-time ranks in Suns franchise history. The best is yet to come in Arizona and Booker has lots to live up to.
The NBA’s future has never looked better
LeBron James has been the face of the NBA for almost two decades now since entering the league in 2003. His reign atop the throne has to end at some point though, even though the King is still playing at a high level and currently the MVP favorite for the defending champs that are currently on a seven-game winning streak.
However, once the “Chosen One” is no longer carrying his teams to championship contention, there will be an abundance of young players ready to take the torch. The most likely trifecta to claim that premier position appears to be Giannis Antetokounmpo, who already has 2 MVPs and a DPOY award, Luka Doncic, a guy that stuffs stat sheets unlike any player at this age after coming over as a European MVP, and Zion Williamson who’s unprecedented athletic capabilities has him off to the most efficient start of a player’s career in NBA history.
Nikola Jokic, Ja Morant, Jayson Tatum, Trae Young, Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell, Jaylen Brown, Bam Adebayo, Jamal Murray, and De’Aaron Fox have all shown flashes of MVP-caliber play before turning 26 years old and seem to be fixtures in the NBA throughout the 2020’s.
The future was flashed right in front of fans’ eyes on Friday Night when Luka went off for a career-high 46 PTS to overcome Zion’s career-high 36 points on 14-15 FG. Even Kristaps Porzingis and Brandon Ingram each dropped 30+ PTS as it marked the first time in NBA history where four players age-25 or younger all recorded 30 points or more in the same game.
This is just the beginning. The amount of high-quality talent that is coming into the league isn’t stopping anytime soon with a stacked class set to enter in 2021 plus one of the most hyped prospects ever in Emoni Bates on the cusp of reaching his dreams to play in the NBA in the near future as well.
King James has been an incredible leader for the league, and when his time is up, no matter who takes over as the ‘face’ of the game, there will be exciting competition every night loaded with some of the most athletic, talented, and skilled players the game has ever seen. The future of the NBA is as bright as it’s ever been.
Jimmy Butler’s return has the Heat back on track for NBA championship contention
The Miami Heat made a surprising run to the NBA Finals last year (not surprising to PSO) in just the first year since adding Jimmy Butler in the offseason. Butler’s presence helped elevate the young players around him in South Beach as Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn, and Duncan Robinson were all much improved in 2020 and kept it going into the bubble where Goran Dragic also had the best run of his career as well.
For all those who said Jimmy Butler isn’t a ‘winning’ teammate were proved wrong after witnessing his heroics in the NBA Finals as he outperformed the greatest player of his generation on the biggest stage multiple times. Butler has an x-factor to him as the type of player to leave it all on the line, regardless of his superstar status.
When he was out for 10 games for COVID protocols, the Heat struggled. Really struggled. Miami went 2-8 without their 5x All-Star leading the way. The Heat are now 5-2 since his return and are now riding a four-game win streak after Butler racked up his first triple-double of the season against Houston on Thursday.
Butler is the type of player to get buckets when his team needs them most, but then be a main distributor throughout the game to get his teammates involved. Considering he has another All-Star around him in Adebayo, a rising stud in Herro, a certified clutch scorer in Dragic, and a prolific sharpshooter in Robinson, the reigning East champions have more than enough firepower, defense, and leadership under 2x NBA Champion Eric Spoelstra to make it back to the NBA Finals.
None of their recent victories have been that impressive considering they’re against losing teams but the Heat had to get back on track and Butler’s return has allowed them to do exactly that. Their upcoming six-game road trip against the best of the west in the Utah Jazz, LA Lakers, LA Clippers, and Golden St. Warriors will really prove if this team is all the way back to being the gritty, cohesive squad that no team wants to face.
Zach LaVine is the greatest scorer Chicago has had since Michael Jordan
It’s difficult to compare any player to Michael Jordan, but what Zach LaVine is doing this season deserves to be recognized among the Chi-town greats. While he’s obviously no MJ, ‘Air LaVine’ is putting up over 28 points per game on an extremely efficient 52%/43%/85% shooting line. LaVine has played at an All-Star level for three seasons now but has yet to be named to the prestigious squad. That changes this year.
Considering the production LaVine has provided for Chicago, records he’s breaking in the Windy City, and winning plays he makes on a nightly basis, Bulls fans are witnessing the greatest scorer they’ve seen in the United Center since ‘His Airness’.
LaVine made history again on Wednesday as he and Coby White became the first teammates to ever record eight 3PM or more each in the same game. LaVine was previously perceived as strictly a high-flyer but has developed his jump shot to the point it’s now among the best in the league as he drains 3.5 3’s per game on 43% shooting.
Derrick Rose‘s MVP season won’t be forgotten anytime soon and Jimmy Butler‘s two-way contributions during CHI’s most recent run of contending were hard to match, but no Bulls player has been able to score at the level and variety of LaVine since the greatest scorer of all-time.
He’s the main reason Chicago is staying competitive and is even one game out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, which is why he could be the next superstar to request a trade to a winning team. LaVine not only deserves to make his first All-Star Game this year, but warrants a spot on one of the three All-NBA teams, and recognition as one of the best scorers in the game.
Carmelo Anthony deserves more recognition as one of the greatest scorers of all-time
Back in 2003 when Carmelo Anthony first entered the league, there was an ongoing debate whether LeBron James or Melo was going to be the better NBA player. While that discussion evaporated within a few years, it doesn’t take away from the greatness that Carmelo has accomplished himself.
King James is one of, if not the greatest player to ever play the game, and has undoubtedly casted a shadow on Melo’s career due to his own unprecedented success as a 2003 NBA Draft class member. That along with a lack of a championship has suffocated Anthony’s all-time legacy in the eyes of many NBA fans.
Regardless of his team’s success over his 18-year career, nobody can take away his all-time scoring prowess. Tuesday marked the day he officially passed the Big O Oscar Robertson for 12th on the career scoring list, and he’ll likely enter the top-10 by the end of the year. Anthony’s playing style isn’t one that usually leads to Championships as a No.1 option, but as a supporting cast member on Portland, he can bring an offensive punch to the second unit that desperately needs someone who can get their own shot.
It won’t be known how realistic his title aspirations are this season until CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic show their fully healthy by the playoffs, but even if he retires without a ring, he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer and one of the greatest scorers to ever play the game. Scoring is the most difficult and significant skill to have in the game of basketball and Anthony did it better than almost anyone. Instead of knocking him for what he hasn’t accomplished in his illustrious career, let’s just appreciate all that he has done.
LaMelo Ball is already showing his future MVP potential now that he’s in the starting lineup
Among a tightly contested Rookie of the Year race, LaMelo Ball is starting to emerge as the clear favorite. Charlotte has finally started to insert the young rook into the starting lineup in each of the last five games and he’s rewarded them with the best five-game stretch of his career thus far, averaging 22.6 PPG, 6.6 APG, and 6.0 RPG on an astonishing 51.4% 3P. It seems the confidence Ball has as a starter has directly led to more success from behind the arc and being more aggressive.
It’s unknown whether Ball will maintain a spot in the starting five considering PG Devonte’ Graham, SG Terry Rozier, or PF PJ Washington have missed each of those games, so LaMelo naturally moved up from 6th man to starter. There’s no telling whether that will continue if all six are healthy but if Charlotte was smart, they’d hand the keys to the youngest Ball brother right now. He’s already shown glimpses of greatness with a skillset similar to some of the best players in the game.
He can shoot 3’s at a high level already, has natural passing abilities, and owns a finishing package at the rim that’ll lead to an abundance of highlights. PSO pointed out he has a MVP-caliber ceiling in his NBA Draft scouting report because of his ability to impact the game in a variety of ways and is already showing his sky-high potential as the youngest player ever to to drain seven 3PM in a game while also racking up double-digit assists. Who knows when Ball will reach that lofty ceiling but until then, enjoy the show.
Led by Nikola Jokic, the NBA’s best Bigs are as versatile as the league has ever seen
In the new age of the NBA, plenty of things have evolved and changed just in the last decade. It’s mostly resulted in better offenses with NBA scoring at the highest marks in history and 3-point records being broken on a seemingly nightly basis. One contributing factor to that has been the rise of the versatile big man.
All across the league, NBA Centers and Power Forwards are regularly standing outside the perimeter draining deep shots. This used to be an extremely rare trait for a 6’10” player or taller to be capable of and why Dirk Nowitzki’s career was so unique. In 2021, there’s a plethora of Nowitzki-type Big Men who are not only extremely effective in the paint, but now also pose a threat from outside. This is great for spacing the floor, removing the defensive rim protector from the interior as he’s now forced to respect the jump shot, which gives the offense’s ball handlers much more room to make plays.
Nikola Jokic is asserting himself as the league’s best Big Man with a MVP-caliber season that has him putting up 27 PPG, 11.5 RPG, and 8.5 APG. He’s also doing this on an efficient 57% FG/39% 3P/84% FT. Jokic is already solidifying himself as the greatest passer and triple-double threat of any Big Man ever, and his outside offensive game really takes it to the next level. He along with Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Vucevic, and countless others have unique versatility that has truly changed the game.
Kemba Walker is the biggest x-factor in the Eastern Conference this season
At this point, Celtics fans know what they’re going to get from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown as the two young J’s have developed into consistent All-Star caliber performers. It’s their third star that warrants far less confidence due to his rocky production, dating back to last year’s playoffs. Kemba Walker was a clutch legend in College at the University of Connecticut with his legacy cemented as ‘Cardiac Kemba’ through one of the most iconic shots in CBB history.
However, since joining the NBA, Walker hadn’t faced real high-pressure situations until his ninth season when he joined Boston before their Eastern Conference Finals run in 2020. He completely underwhelmed in his first extended taste of postseason action on both sides of the ball, which could have been due to the knee injury he was dealing with.
That lingering injury was still bothering him at the beginning of the 2020-21 season as he missed the first dozen games before returning on somewhat of a minutes restriction. Kemba hasn’t looked like himself this season at all with his PPG (16.1), APG (4.3), FG% (38.3), and 3P% (29.8) all being the lowest of his career or since his lackluster rookie season, where he was mostly coming off the bench.
When Walker is on, he’s an All-Star caliber PG like the one that showed up vs. the Clippers on Friday, helping lead Boston to victory in Brown’s absence over one of the best teams in the league. However, he’s also supplemented those kind of performances with some of the worst production in the fourth quarter this season and various no-shows. He’s the key to Boston taking the next step and finally getting past the ECF since the ‘Big 3’ era which makes him the biggest x-factor in the East, if not the entire league.
LeBron James is the only player ever who’s a top-5 passer AND top-5 scorer of all-time
There has been a lot of GOAT talk this week since Patrick Mahomes is facing Tom Brady in Super Bowl 55 as two generational greats. LeBron James is also heavily featured in a NBA GOAT conversation himself with fans usually pitting him against Michael Jordan. MJ’s run of dominance and Finals perfection will likely never be matched, but King James is undoubtedly a better all-around player, mainly due to his passing prowess.
King James is currently eighth on the all-time assists list, but is poised to enter the top-4 in the next two years as he continues to play at the top of his game. CP3 is the only active player ahead of him who might prevent him from placing third, but nobody is stopping the King from being a top-3 scorer of all-time as he’s already passed Kobe Bryant for the third most points of all-time and has now surpassed Wilt Chamberlain for the third most baskets made ever.
He’s the only player ever that will go down as top-5 scorer and top-5 passer. The King’s production is unmatched and it’s completely unprecedented the level of performances he’s still racking up in Year 18 with another triple-double now under his belt at 36 years old. The GOAT conversation typically can only be resolved in the final game of the season, but nobody can deny that when it comes to the combination of passing and scoring, the two most important skillsets to have in the game of basketball, LeBron is the King of the crop.
The reigning 2x MVP isn’t as productive this season, but he’s actually more valuable than he’s ever been
Despite winning each of the last two NBA MVP awards, not much has been said about Giannis Antetokounmpo now that he’s signed his super-max contract extension, and will no longer reach free agency after the season. He hasn’t been getting much MVP consideration considering his numbers are mostly down across the board and the Bucks haven’t been the same clear-cut No.1 team in the East as they were the previous two seasons.
However, going beyond the surface of Milwaukee’s W-L record and Giannis’ box score statistics shows the Greek Freak making himself more valuable than ever. While he’s “only” scoring 27.0 PPG this year compared to 29.5 last year, it’s because he’s taking less shots, specifically less three-point attempts. Considering Antetokounmpo has never been a big outside threat and has rarely hit even 30% of those 3PA’s, it’s much more valuable for the offense when he’s not taking those outside shots.
Instead, he’s using his world-class length to constantly penetrate his way into the paint and is finding open teammates more than ever with a career-high 6.0 APG. His two biggest weaknesses, and really the only two weaknesses in his game, has been his lack of a consistent jump shot and not being much of a facilitator for others. Over the last two games, he’s completely cut out trying to shoot with 0 3PA’s in consecutive games, and is paving the way for his Milwaukee teammates to get better shots.
He’s also pairing this evolved offensive play-style with the same Defensive Player of the Year-caliber play on that side of the ball as well. Giannis might not be as productive as years past, but he’s playing unselfish basketball and doing what’s best to win games which makes him as valuable as ever at 26 years old with as bright of a future as any player in the league.
Fred VanVleet is the greatest undrafted scorer of all-time
For College Basketball fans reading this, some remember the Wichita State runs of the mid-2010s that heavily featured 2x Conference Player of the Year Fred VanVleet. That player NCAA fans witnessed is completely different than the Raptors record-breaker that FVV has become. 60 players heard their name get called in the 2016 NBA Draft, but Fred VanVleet wasn’t one of them.
It hasn’t stopped the Wichita State product from evolving into one of the best offensive players in the game and on the cusp of potentially reaching his first career All-Star Game. VanVleet was a crucial factor in Toronto winning their first championship in franchise history as he stepped up numerous times when the Raptors needed it most, including in the fourth quarter of the series-clinching Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
No matter what happens from here on out, VanVleet will always be a legend in the 6ix for his playoff heroics. However, now he’s starting to cement his legacy as one of the greatest undrafted players of all-time. With his 54 points on Tuesday, he surpassed DeMar DeRozan‘s franchise-record and also set the single-game record for all UDFA’s in NBA history. As he continues to improve and move up the all-time rankings, he’s already worthy of the No.1 spot on greatest undrafted scorers to ever play the game.
Other contenders include Connie Hawkins (1967-76) who’s best two years came in the ABA and John Starks who was an All-Star in the 1990’s. VanVleet only has five years in the NBA under his belt so far, but he’s now averaging over 20 PPG and had a lucrative contract that has him poised to take over as Toronto’s premier playmaker once Kyle Lowry departs or retires. Ben Wallace still deserves to be considered the greatest undrafted player of all-time, but his impact was almost solely on the defensive end. It’s time to consider FVV the greatest undrafted offensive player to ever live.
Luka’s lack of success in crunch time is holding the Mavs back from being a playoff team
Few teams were expected to take a bigger jump this season than the Dallas Mavericks after the year Luka Doncic had as a Sophomore and considering Kristaps Porzingis would theoretically be healthy for most of the season. However, the Mavs have failed to string wins together and their issues in crunch time have continued. Doncic is one of the best players on the planet, but in those final minutes with the game on the line, his production significantly drops.
Tim Hardaway has become the team’s best consistent shot-maker in the final moments as Luka often passes it off when defenses key in on him in those situations. The Mavs often find themselves staying competitive until the final possession, as they have in each of their last two battles against the Suns that have each come down to the wire. However, their best player’s inability to hit those crucial shots when the game is on the line has prevented them from walking away with victories on multiple occasions this season.
Luka had arguably one of the greatest individual playoff performances last year when he racked up a 43-point triple-double on a bum ankle with his partner in crime unavailable and his team on the cusp of facing a 3-1 deficit if he didn’t drain an iconic buzzer-beater and come up clutch for Dallas down the stretch. As amazing as that game was, it was one of the few times where Doncic has come through multiple times in those type of occasions.
Any Mavericks fan is obviously an admirer of Doncic as he’s an international superstar and potential next face of the entire league once LeBron retires. However, if they have been continuously watching Mavs games this year, they’ve witnessed Luka fail to make shots or instead decide to put the game in his teammate’s hands when the clock gets closer to zero.
The Slovenian Superstar is still only 21 years old and considering King James had a ‘choker‘ label on him until he got into his 30’s, Doncic has plenty of time to develop that clutch factor and become the hero Dallas needs to make a run at the postseason in the wild, wild West.
Taking the Over in Nets games has been the lock of the year because of their all-time offense & awful defense
A previous PSO takeaway shined a light on expecting high-scoring affairs in plenty of Brooklyn games this season. Now, it’s become an every night event. The Nets consistently have the highest Over/Under set by Vegas, yet they and their opponents are still surpassing those expectations by leaps and bounds as the O/U has hit in 15 of the last 16 Nets games.
Since Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden have teamed up, they are on pace to break the all-time single-season NBA record with a 122.6 offensive rating while simultaneously in line to break the single-season defensive rating record as well (119.9). Their offense is other-worldy but their defense is abysmal. They can combine for 120+ points without even practicing, but can’t prevent a team from reaching the same threshold even when they try.
When watching their games, it doesn’t look like they are trying at times, specifically on the defensive end. This isn’t unusual as plenty of title contenders typically don’t pick things up until after the All-Star break. Even then, this team isn’t built to defend at a high level since they traded their rim protector, and their other two best defenders in the blockbuster trade to acquire Harden.
The Wizards have only won four games this season, with 50% of them coming against the KD/Kyrie-led Nets as Harden wasn’t available for either game. Brooklyn’s chances of competing for a championship would increase significantly if they’re able to add a prominent player who can anchor the team on that side of the ball to play alongside three all-time scorers who all lack a defensive edge at this stage in their careers. Until then, keep taking the OVER and enjoy witnessing history.
Portland’s only chance to stay alive in the West is if Dame plays like an MVP on a nightly basis
When CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic went down, not many people believed Portland would still be able to compete in the West. They’ve been able to float around .500 without their second and third best player, mainly due to Damian Lillard’s continuous MVP performances. Dame has now earned Player of the Day honors in each of his last two games as he leads the Blazers through this adversity.
On Saturday, Portland was just a few seconds away from blowing ANOTHER 19-point lead. However, Dame had other plans. He put on his cape and put Portland on his back. Down five points with 10 seconds left, Lillard squared up a DEEP 3PM to make it a one-possession game. The Blazers were able to trap the inbounds and force a jump ball which led to it going in Lillard’s direction. He then step-backed over the 7-foot Lauri Markkanen for his franchise-record third game-winning buzzer-beater of his Hall of Fame career.
Recent seasons have shown that Dame Time typically reaches his peak after a month or two, and he might be on the cusp of going on a run of dominance like he did last year. He’s averaging 34 PPG and 8.3 APG over his last eight outings. Portland can be a legitimate contender in the West when healthy, however, they won’t be at full strength for at least another month. For them to stay alive in the wild, wild West until then, they’ll need MVP performances from their best player damn near every time they take the floor, or they just won’t have enough juice to get it done.
Warriors W-L total is completely dependent on Steph’s supporting cast
With Kevin Durant (Brooklyn) and Klay Thompson (injured) no longer around, Steph Curry has more on his plate than he ever has. The baby-faced assassin has answered the bell by averaging the most PPG (27.7) and FGA (20.0) as any year in his career besides his unanimous 2015-16 MVP season. However, the Warriors are far from the 73-9 powerhouse they were five years ago as they currently own a 10-9 record and sit outside of the playoff picture at the No. 9 seed.
The difference for Golden State has nothing to do with their best player, who’s about as good as he’s ever been. It’s the rest of the squad. When Curry’s supporting cast combines to score 85+ points, the Warriors are 8-1. When Steph’s teammates fail to score that much, GSW falls to 2-8. Similarly, when all non-Steph Warriors collectively shoot 45% or better, the Dubs are 9-1, but sport a 1-8 record when they aren’t making enough shots to reach that threshold.
As good as Steph Curry is, he can’t do it all by himself. When his teammates step up, the Warriors are one of the best teams in the league, as proven by their impressive wins against the Lakers, Clippers, and Blazers. However, when Kelly Oubre Jr. shoots poorly (like he did on Thursday; 1-10 FG) and Andrew Wiggins isn’t putting the ball in the basket consistently, Golden St. can get dominated in any game like they did on Opening Night vs. Brooklyn or on this night to Phoenix. If the Warriors want to make it anywhere this season, it won’t be up to Steph. It’ll be determined by the rest of the crew.
If Scott Brooks isn’t forced to leave soon, it seems inevitable that Bradley Beal will force his own way out
Bradley Beal can’t catch a break. The man leading the nation’s capital is averaging a whopping 41 PPG over his last six games played, but DC is 0-6 in those games and now 3-11 overall. Without John Wall alongside him in the backcourt, the Wizards have lacked the firepower to provide Beal with even an adequate supporting cast. It’s hard to point to a lack of scoring as Washington’s issues though, considering their collective 115.7 PPG are the fourth most in the entire NBA.
It’s really the defensive side of the ball that is holding WAS back and preventing Beal’s constant 30+pt performances from translating into victories. This isn’t new for Wizards fans as the team had the same glaring issue last year. The franchise finally got rid of GM Ernie Grunfeld and as much praise as Tommy Shepard has received since taking the reins, he failed to address one of the biggest weaknesses any team in the league had entering the season: DC’s dismal defense.
Now it’s gone from bad to worse with Russell Westbrook’s load management, Thomas Bryant’s torn ACL, and Troy Brown’s progress turning in the opposite direction. Some blame definitely deserves to be pointed at the front office for not acquiring more defensive-minded players or using their top-10 pick on a defensive stopper (or at least someone that can contribute 20-30+ MPG right away because of their defensive acumen).
However, a recurring theme in Washington’s lack of success during Bradley Beal’s ascension to one of the best scorers in the league has been Head Coach Scott Brooks. The basketball leader in the nation’s capital doesn’t instill any defensive accountability which has had a detrimental impact on the amount of points opponents score vs. the Wiz on a nightly basis. When is enough, enough? It’s only a matter of time until their frustrated superstar forces his way out unless they fire Scott Brooks and find a HC that can bring this team back to the playoffs in the near future.
If Trae Young’s game reminds the viewer of anyone, they won’t have to go too far back in history to see the resemblance. The sensational sharpshooting and incredible handles are cut from the same cloth as Steph Curry, who took the NBA by storm during his back-to-back MVP seasons that included the only unanimous Most Valuable Player selection of all-time.
Curry’s defense has always been viewed as a weak spot, but Steph’s unstoppable offensive skillset not only allowed him to succeed at an unprecedented level, but it also opened the floor for his teammates to get more open shots as well. Curry ended up teaming up with another certified assassin, which briefly took away from his opportunities, but now the Warriors playmaker is back to showing the world why he’s so special. When #30 is on his game in the Bay, he’s arguably the single biggest game-changer anyone has ever witnessed with his scorching scoring streaks.
The Hawks have their own version of that offensive threat in the Oklahoma product. The scary thing is ‘Ice Trae’ is reaching heights at 21 and 22 years old that Steph Curry didn’t reach until 25 years old. Showing off such a dynamic skill set at this young an age makes Young’s future as bright as anyone. It’s unlikely Trae Young will ever be a remote threat on the defensive side of the ball considering his lack of size and strength, but like Curry, it won’t matter if he can continue to shoot the lights out and facilitate for others.
Young’s already a better passer than the Chef and has handles and range that are part of an exclusive club among the best in the NBA. Young still has plenty to clean up in his game (turnovers, consistency, etc.) but he’s already an All-Star starter, one of the most lethal offensive threats in the league, and a box office attraction that could one day reach a level even Curry couldn’t. The ceiling is really that high for Ice Trae, who showed it once again on Tuesday.
Malcolm Brogdon is poised to earn his first All-Star appearance this season
Malcolm Brogdon may be the most underrated player in the NBA these days. In his first year in the league, Brogdon became the first second-round pick since 1965 to win the Rookie of the Year award. Two years ago, he became just the eighth player in NBA history to achieve a 50-40-90 season. The other guys on that list? Larry Bird, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Reggie Miller, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, and Mark Price. That’s some pretty good company.
Brogdon has gradually improved his game over the course of his career, and in his fifth year, he’s taken it to another level. Brogdon is averaging 22.8 points, 7.4 assists, and 4.2 rebounds a game, and is flirting with another 50-40-90 season, shooting 48.1% from the field, 45.7% from deep, and 88.2% from the line. More importantly, the 28-year-old is the starting point guard on one of the best teams in the East, who just shipped out Oladipo, doubling down on their belief in Brogdon as their guard of the future.
On Thursday, Brogdon finished with 25 points, five rebounds, seven assists, and three steals, leading the Pacers to their first win in Portland since 2007. Brogdon and Sabonis are slowly turning into one of the game’s best guard-big duos, and have Indiana sitting at 8-4, looking like one of the most complete teams in the entire league. Two off-seasons ago, Indiana offered Brogdon a four-year, $85 million offer sheet that many believed was an overpay, and the Milwaukee Bucks chose not to match. As Brogdon plays through the second year of that deal, the Pacers’ decision clearly looks like the right one.
The problem that Harden was referring to in Houston may have been himself
After a tumultuous past couple of months in Houston, the Rockets finally shaved their beard, shipping out James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets. The final straw was Harden’s postgame interview following back-to-back blowout losses to the Lakers, where he said the Rockets weren’t “good enough” to compete with the best teams in the league. Teammates John Wall and Demarcus Cousins didn’t hold back in their own interviews, and less than 24 hours later, Harden was gone. The Rockets trade looked to the future, as they gained four first-round picks and another four first-round swaps.
They did, however, secure Victor Oladipo in the trade, a 28-year old on an expiring deal who will be playing for a big contract in the offseason. On Thursday, the Rockets didn’t have Oladipo suited up yet, while Wall and Eric Gordon were out with injuries. Down by nine with 4:39 to go, this cohesive Rockets team played inspired basketball. They went into San Antonio, took down the mostly fully-loaded Spurs, and secured their first road win of the season. However, this new-found level of chemistry doesn’t mean this Rockets team is now going to win the Championship in July.
Their recent draft history hasn’t been great, but they’ll have a lot of cracks at hitting a winner over the next eight years, especially the back half of the deal when KD, Harden, and Kyrie are in the twilight years of their career. It’s not easy to trade a superstar and come away as a winner, but the Rockets put themselves in a position to be very successful in the future and proved to their current roster that the days of one player getting special treatment because of their talent are over. There’s a new era in Houston, and the current guys on the roster look very happy to be a part of it, which is a lot different than it was just 48 hours ago.
The Brooklyn Nets have officially taken over New York from the Knicks
The Nets dominated the Knicks on Wednesday in the battle of New York (until garbage time), but that was far from the biggest story of the day in the Big Apple. Hours before tip-off, James Harden was shipped to the Brooklyn Nets in a four-team deal that shifted the entire landscape of the NBA. The Nets mortgaged their future and depth for a run at a title, and have assembled the most unguardable big three in NBA history. Assuming Kyrie returns from his personal hiatus, the Nets can put out a lineup of Irving, Harden, Kevin Durant, Joe Harris, and DeAndre Jordan. Imagine being an opposing coach trying to slow that team down.
Brooklyn’s lineup now features three of the greatest isolation scorers in NBA history, all still seemingly in their prime. Opposing teams can’t double-team one of them to leave the others open, yet are being forced to guard three of the league’s most unstoppable players one-on-one. Good luck.
One major storyline to watch in this trade is Brooklyn’s depth. The Nets shipped out rising stars Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen, while also losing Taurean Prince and Rodions Kurucs. This trade will highlight Spencer Dinwiddie’s torn ACL, as the second-unit is expected to now feature Landry Shamet, Tyler Johnson, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Jeff Green, Bruce Brown, and the lone big man Nic Claxton (when he returns from injury).
Brooklyn does have three open roster spots available and can use their $5.7 million tax ML, a likely $5.7 million Disabled Player Exception from Dinwiddie’s injury, along with one minimum exception to fill them. Almost any free agent is expected to chomp at the bit for a chance to join this team and compete for a championship alongside the most talented Big 3 in NBA history. The Nets should also be huge players in the buyout market post-trade deadline which has produced quality bench players like Markieff Morris, Reggie Jackson, and Jeff Green last year.
Paul George is the best player on the Clippers this year, not Kawhi Leonard
Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are shoe-ins to be All-Stars this year as long as they stay healthy. They make up one of the best duos in the league, and a couple of the NBA’s most effective two-way players. Kawhi, however, was in a different tier than PG entering the year, as not only the best on the Clippers but one of the four NBA Finals MVPs in the entire league (Kawhi x2, LeBron x4, Durant x2, and Iguodala). However, early on in the year, Paul George is proving to be the Clippers’ most valuable player, worth every bit of that lucrative extension he received this offseason.
Paul George is in full-blown comeback mode this season following his struggles in the bubble. George is having a career-year for the Clippers, particularly as a shooter, as he’s looking to become just the ninth player to join the 50-40-90 club in NBA history, shooting 49.7% from the field, an inconceivable 51.6% from three, and 90.9% from the charity stripe. The 30-year-old is also averaging a strong 25.2 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per contest, and has played in all but one of the Clippers’ games.
PG13 admitted being in the bubble took a toll on him mentally, and some of his peers around the league continue to come at George for his lack of mental toughness. Regardless, none of that matters to him right now, as PG is enjoying the most efficient shooting season of his career, and has looked nothing short of the number one option and best player on this stacked Clippers roster that’s ready to bounce back following a disappointing exit in last year’s playoffs.
LeBron is playing with a new championship swagger and confidence, but AD surprisingly isn’t
The highlight of the night saw LeBron James turn around at his teammates before draining a 3-pointer in a blowout victory in H-Town. The 4x Champ LeBron James is talking the talk, celebrating his big moments, and turning around before his threes are even dropping, which turned out to be in response to an in-game “bet” with Dennis Schroder. While some expected LBJ to have a slow start after the short offseason as a 36-year-old, King James still sits on his throne as the best player in the game, and is playing with as much swagger, confidence, and energy as ever.
Meanwhile, Anthony Davis is finally playing in the League as an NBA Champion. After spending the first seven years of his career trying to crawl to the top, he’s now entering his 9th season on the reigning best team in the league, and favorite to repeat this year. He’s also playing his first year under the lucrative 5y/$190 million contract the Lakers awarded him in the offseason, giving him the seventh largest contract in NBA history. If that doesn’t give a guy confidence, then nothing will. Yet early on in the year, it’s been a quieter AD than most expected and a decrease in production across the board.
Davis is by no means having a bad year in LA. AD is playing like an All-Star, and has shown flashes of his dominance when the Lakers have needed him to. However, he isn’t looking like the unstoppable, aggressive, swagger-filled player the Lakers saw in the bubble. Davis has not been as aggressive on the boards this year, averaging just 8.7 rebounds per game, the fewest since his rookie season. He’s getting to the line HALF as much as he has over the last 4-5 years, and at times has looked like a spot up shooter on the Lakers team, as opposed to a threat on all three levels.
It should be understood that first and foremost, the Lakers are clearly prioritizing Davis’ health this year, as a healthy AD makes LA a runaway title-favorite. Second, AD is spending more time than ever at the PF position, a whopping 88% of the time, which would be 24% more than any other season. As more of a stretch-4 now, Davis isn’t disappointing, shooting as efficiently as ever from the field, and proficiently as ever from three. A subdued AD isn’t a problem for the Lakers, especially as he should alter his energy levels come playoff time, but it’s interesting that LBJ has gained the confidence and swagger many were expecting AD to play with this year.
Joel Embiid has officially entered the MVP conversation
Joel Embiid has racked up many accolades early in his NBA career. The 26-year-old is a 3x All-Star, 2x All-NBA 2nd-Teamer, 2x All-NBA Defensive 2nd-Teamer, and was on the All-Rookie 1st Team in 2017. After missing his first two seasons with a foot injury, the 7-footer has lived up to everything and more as the key ingredient of “The Process,” yet in his fifth NBA season, he’s taken yet another jump.
Joel Embiid has officially entered his name as a candidate for the MVP Award, averaging over 26 points and 12 rebounds per game as he leads the team with the most wins in the East. He’s recording career-highs in field goal, three-point, and free-throw percentages, and has been a force on both ends of the floor for the 8-4 Covid-riddled Sixers. Despite Simmons fouling out in regulation on Tuesday, and the Sixers only having eight available guys to begin with, Embiid put the team on his back, sending the game to OT with a 21-foot pull-up jumper with 3.3 seconds left, and scoring 11 of the team’s 17 points in the extra period to beat the Heat.
On Tuesday, Embiid became the first player since 1983-84 with at least 45 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, and five steals in a game. Embiid is by far the best player on the current top team in the Eastern Conference, and the 26-year-old is solidifying himself as one of the best players in the entire league. Embiid’s best finish in the MVP race has been 7th. Considering his massive impact on both ends of the floor so far, that’s destined to change this year.
CJ McCollum’s All-Star play makes this the most talented Blazers team of the Dame-CJ era
CJ McCollum is having a career-year for the Blazers this season. McCollum is averaging career-highs in points (28.1), assists (5.0), and three-point percentage (44.5%), while being an elite scorer alongside All-Star Damian Lillard. McCollum’s ability to knock down shots has been crucial to the Blazers’ success, as Lillard has seen double and triple teams on numerous occasions.
On Monday, McCollum was the hero for Portland, as he knocked down a pull-up 17-footer with 10 seconds left to give the Blazers the lead, and ultimately the win. On a team where fourth quarters are known as “Dame Time,” McCollum had the ball in his hands when the game mattered most — and he delivered. If McCollum is able to sustain these numbers, he could finally be looking at his first career All-Star appearance during his eighth NBA season. But more importantly for the Blazers, if this play is sustainable from CJ, they have a real shot at beating ANYONE in the West, including the champs.
De’Aaron Fox is the most underrated ATHLETE in the league
De’Aaron Fox isn’t just quick… He has world-class quickness. His ability to grab a rebound and get down the court is similar to that of John Wall and Russell Westbrook, two of the fastest players to ever step inside an NBA arena. The way Fox can drive to the hoop for explosive slams is unmatched, especially for someone of his size. Speed and athleticism is not a requirement to be a great Point Guard in the NBA, but it sure does help, and the Kentucky product is proving that in his fourth season.
In a close game against the Pacers, De’Aaron Fox received a pass at the top of the key and didn’t hesitate to explode down the lane for a vicious dunk that turned out to be the dagger in the Kings’ win over Indy. Fox is not only explosive for a point guard, but he’s as athletic as anyone in the league. Though his game compares to the likes of Wall and Westbrook, Fox doesn’t earn the same recognition when it comes to being the league’s greatest athletes, even though Fox has dunk-contest level athleticism and the speed to outrun anyone in the open court. With a few more highlight dunks like the one he had on Monday, he may finally get that respect.
Expect Zach LaVine to be the next superstar to request a trade
Zach LaVine has taken the superstar leap this year. He’s averaging career-highs in points (27.7), assists (4.6), rebounds (5.1), field goal percentage (49.1%), and free throw percentage (88.7%), cementing himself as a top player and premier scorer in this league. He had recent scoring performances of 39, 38, 33, and 32 going into Sunday’s tilt with the Clippers, and drained clutch shots down the stretch in wins against the Wizards and Trail Blazers.
On Sunday, it was more of the same for LaVine, who scored 45 points, including 10 3PM, and added seven rebounds along with seven assists. LaVine did everything he could for the Bulls, yet they came up just short in a tough three-point loss to the Clippers, two days after their two-point loss to the Lakers, also at the Staples Center.
LaVine is playing like a superstar, and it may be time he wants to be treated like one. If the Bulls continue to lose, especially in the fashion they’ve lost their last couple games, LaVine may become even more frustrated with the losing franchise. It would not be surprising to see LaVine request to be traded to a contender, and to have a shot at playing playoff basketball for the first time in his seven-year career.
Draymond Green’s health is the real catalyst for the Warriors team status
Draymond Green missed the first four games of the Warriors’ season due to a foot injury he suffered during training camp. The Warriors went 2-2 in those games, starting out with two blowout losses to the Nets and Bucks, and needed a last-second three to take down the Bulls. In Green’s first game back, he played just 17 minutes in a loss. Since then, Green has played at least 20 minutes in every game. The Warriors are 4-1 in those games.
Green is the defensive anchor for the Warriors on one side of the ball, and a gifted passer and playmaker on the other. On Sunday in Toronto, Green had a near triple-double, accumulating season-highs in points (10), rebounds (9), and assists (10). In a game where Steph Curry went just 2-16 from the field, Green was able to make the right plays for this team, help everyone around him play better, and they collectively held off the Raptors in a hard-fought victory. As long as Green stays healthy, the Warriors are a threat in the West and will continue outperforming their overall talent.
Tyrese Maxey showed he has the potential to be a lethal NBA scorer sooner than later with an elite floater
The Philadelphia 76ers were drastically derailed by the league’s health and safety protocols on Saturday. Due to Seth Curry’s positive test and contact tracing, the 76ers only had seven guys eligible to play, including four rookies and the only available starter, Danny Green. This thrusted 20-year-old rookie Tyrese Maxey into the starting lineup, the 21st overall pick out of Kentucky. Maxey flashed tons of potential at Kentucky, particularly with his ability to score the ball. That’s exactly what he did on Saturday against NBA competition.
Maxey led the way for Philly with a career-high 39 points on 18/33 shooting in 41 minutes. Maxey was able to get just about anything he wanted on offense, showing off his keen abilities to get to the hoop. The most impressive part of Maxey’s game, however, was his floater, which at times seemed to be unguardable as he marched down the lane. In a game that could have been difficult for the Sixers to find something positive, Tyrese Maxey threw his name into the conversation as the steal of the draft, and should expect to see more than the 15 minutes a night he was averaging moving forward.
New-look Suns are already showing the chemistry & crunch time success that can get them over the hump
The Phoenix Suns were the Cinderella story of the bubble last season, as they departed with an 8-0 record. Devin Booker was playing at an all-NBA level, and although the team just missed out on the playoffs, they were looking to be a potential sleeper going into this season. They solidified that theory in the offseason, trading for Chris Paul from the Thunder and signing Jae Crowder away from the Heat. They’re just 10 games into their young season, but the Suns are looking like a legitimate threat to be a top team in the West.
Phoenix is 7-3 following a gritty win in Indiana against the now 6-3 Pacers. Booker is picking up where he left off in Orlando, averaging 22 points on 48% shooting, while Paul is averaging over 13 points and eight assists per contest. The real surprise, however, has been the play of Mikal Bridges, who scored a career-high 34 on Saturday, and has developed into the effective 2-way starter the Suns traded for on draft night just three offseasons ago.
Phoenix has seven guys averaging double figures this season, and has reached the century-mark in each of its first ten contests. There were many questions on whether the Suns dominance in the bubble would translate to a normal regular season, especially with major reinforcements added in between. Early on, Monty Williams already has his team playing like a cohesive unit as they sit at the top of the Western Conference, tied with the reigning champs for the No.1 seed.
Jerami Grant wasn’t a “one-bubble wonder,” and is turning his lucrative contract into a bargain
The Pistons had an interesting offseason. They started with three first round picks, but then it got weird. Detroit signed big men Mason Plumlee and Jahlil Okafor for a combined $10M/year, letting their 25-year-old budding star Christian Wood walk for just under $14 million a season. The Pistons also threw $60 million at Jerami Grant for the next three seasons, who came alive during the Nuggets’ playoff run in the bubble but hadn’t proved to be worth $20M/year besides that limited sample size. Grant is still just 26, but many questioned that kind of money for a guy averaging under 10 points and four rebounds in his career.
Fortunately for the Pistons, they seemed to have gotten it right as Jerami Grant is having a career year in every way possible. He’s averaging career-highs in PTS (24.8), REB (6.4), and FT% (86.5%), while converting 46.8% FG and 36.3% 3PA. Grant has also scored a career-high 31 points in each of the Pistons’ last two games, a loss to Milwaukee on Wednesday and an upset victory in OT against the Suns on Friday. Grant put in eight of the team’s 17 points in the OT period, including the final six.
The Pistons will likely not see much time beyond the bottom of the standings this season. Selling at the deadline seems inevitable, as players like Derrick Rose and Blake Griffin could become valuable pieces to a contender and could net promising young players and/or draft picks for a team that isn’t built to contend anytime soon. The Pistons have Grant locked up for three years, they’ve resurrected the career of 23-year-old Josh Jackson who’s locked up for two, and they could accumulate some serious draft assets at the deadline to add to their already young roster that Grant has taken over as the No.1 option for.
This young Hornets team is looking like the most entertaining non-contender
The Hornets may be one of the most exciting teams in the league this year despite their minuscule chances of making the playoffs. Their offseason brought in the 19-year-old G LaMelo Ball with the No. 3 overall pick, and 2017 All-Star F Gordon Hayward via free agency. The backend of Hayward’s four-year, $128 million deal may turn into a headache for the Hornets, but at 30 years old, he should have a few more productive seasons left in the tank which is right in line with the Hornets progression.
Hayward, Ball, and the Hornets extremely young roster including Devonte’ Graham (25), Miles Bridges (22), Terry Rozier (26), and PJ Washington (22) are already playing well this year, and should only improve over the next few years. Hayward is averaging over 22 points a game, Rozier has performances of 42 and 35 points this year, while LaMelo was one assist shy on Friday from becoming the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double during the first matchup against his big brother in the NBA.
The Hornets aren’t winning the title this year. They do, however, have the pieces to contend for playoff basketball sometime soon, and in the meantime are an exciting team to watch with the special plays LaMelo, Rozier, and Graham make in the backcourt along with the above-the-rim tenacity of Miles Bridges. Even though they won’t win consistently this year, they have a real shot to beat their opponent on any given night, which could make them a tough out if they find a way to reach the new postseason play-in tournament.
After a slow start, Luka Doncic is back as the MVP favorite, and the Mavs playoff chances rely on it
Luka Doncic is playing in his third NBA season at 21 years old. He burst onto the scene and grabbed the Rookie of the Year award in his first season, and took a huge leap last season, finishing third for the Most Improved Player award and fourth in MVP voting. Luka entered this season as the favorite to win the MVP, and finally proved why on Thursday, in a 124-117 OT victory over the Nuggets.
Luka did it all on national TV in an OT thriller, scoring 38 points, racking up 13 assists, and bringing down nine boards. He assisted the go-ahead three-pointer in regulation and scored nine of the Mavs’ 15 points in the extra period, leading them to victory in a game that was as important as any early regular season game could be. The Mavericks would’ve dropped to 3-5 with a loss, but they instead sit at 4-4, they grabbed a huge win over a Western Conference contender, and they got some momentum going into their next couple games where they hope to get All-Star Kristaps Porzingis back from injury.
The Nets are the deepest team in the East and can endure short-term absences from their stars
The Nets did not have Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant on Thursday, in a matchup with the NBA’s best 76ers (7-1 entering the day). Durant continues to quarantine due to health and safety protocols, while Irving sat out Thursday’s game for personal reasons. The odds were stacked against first-year Head Coach Steve Nash and his short-handed team, yet they took it to the Sixers, in a dominant 13-point victory that didn’t look as close as the final score may show.
Caris LeVert, who showed out in the bubble last year as a budding star for this team, led the starters with 22 points, 10 assists, and seven rebounds, while Joe Harris, who Nash elected to bring off the bench their last two games (both wins), scored 28 points, including six three-pointers as the primary scorer of the second unit. Also in double figures was Jeff Green, Taurean Prince, and Jarrett Allen, who Nash inserted into the starting lineup their last two games, both of which he put up a double-double.
Brooklyn has demonstrated through their back-to-back wins without KD — and now without Kyrie as well — that they may be the deepest team in the East. This depth will play a key role in maintaining the health of their stars, while keeping the team afloat during this unprecedented year. However, chemistry is an important aspect of the game, and the Nets must find time for KD, Kyrie, and the rest of their squad to gel. If the Nets want a real shot at a championship this season, they need KD and Kyrie to suit up for as many games as they can, especially during the second-half of the year or they could end up like the Clippers did last season.
Markelle Fultz was showing solid progress but now Orlando’s playoff chances rely on a rookie
Markelle Fultz and the Orlando Magic have been two of the league’s early season surprises. Coming into Wednesday night, Fultz was averaging more points, assists, and minutes than ever in his career, and was finally starting to look like the No. 1 overall pick the 76ers drafted just four years ago. Fultz was the starting point guard for the 5-2 (now 6-2) Magic, who currently sit at the No. 2 seed in the East, but a non-contact torn ACL shut down his breakout season, and now becomes a difficult obstacle in the Magic’s playoff chase.
Cole Anthony, the 15th overall pick in this year’s draft, is expected to take over a larger role, potentially in the starting lineup to replace Fultz. Anthony has shown flashes early in his career, but has gone through the normal growing pains of adjusting to the league. He won’t have much time to get settled into his new role, as the Magic have a difficult stretch of games — matchups with the Mavericks, Bucks, Celtics (twice), and Nets — eight of the next nine being outside of Orlando. This will likely prove whether the Magic can survive without Markelle or if his injury is too much to overcome for a mediocre team in the East
Miami is the same extremely resilient team they were in the bubble
The Miami Heat were the Cinderella story in the bubble last year. They swept the Pacers, ousted the Bucks in five games, and then took down the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals in six hard-fought battles. They were taken down by the Lakers in six games in the Finals, but not due to a lack of fight. Erik Spolestra’s team has sustained that resilience in the new season. However, many NBA experts and league evaluators believed they benefitted from the unique circumstances 2020 presented, and wouldn’t be as successful in 2021.
The Heat might have lost to the Celtics in the Game of the Day on Wednesday, an ECF rematch in Miami, but they showed that same extreme resilience that helped them thrive in the bubble. The Heat were down by as much as 17 in the first half, but fought their way back to take a lead in the third quarter, and enter the fourth in an 80-80 stalemate. The Celtics were able to take a 10-point lead with 1:17 to go in the fourth, which would presumably put away most teams. Not this Miami team.
The Heat battled back in the final minute, tying the game with 13 seconds left. A Payton Pritchard put-back at the buzzer ultimately put MIA away, but they demonstrated that toughness that carried them into the Finals last year. The Heat sent a message to the rest of the Eastern Conference on Wednesday: Last year was not a fluke. Don’t count this team out.
LeBron James continues to be one of the greatest closers ever, even in Year 18
Lebron James is playing in his 18th season in the NBA. He just turned 36 years old before the turn of the new year. LeBron is coming off a season in which he led the league in assists for the first time in his career, and became the first player in NBA history to win a Finals MVP award with three teams. With just a 72-day offseason, this was looking like the year LeBron could finally slow down. Not so fast.
LeBron took over down the stretch of the Lakers 94-92 win over the Grizzlies, hitting multiple tough fadeaway jumpers in the closing minutes of the game and executing an unstoppable pick-and-roll alongside Anthony Davis. Even though Kyrie’s comments were misplaced and the narrative earlier in the ‘Chosen One’s career said otherwise, James proved once again why he’s one of the most effective closers in the game. The King would go on to finish with 26 points, 11 rebounds, and six assists, his third double-double of the year (he also has one triple-double).
Most 36-year-olds in the league are taking a backseat on their squads (ex. Andre Iguodala, Carmelo Anthony, JJ Redick, Paul Millsap, or Lakers teammate Marc Gasol). Their playing time is diminishing, and they may even be transitioning into a player-coach type of role. LeBron is different. King James has played in all eight games this year for the Lakers, despite the turned ankle he’s been nursing since opening night. Bron will be looking to lead his Lakers to the top seed in the West yet again, and to hoist his 5th championship and MVP trophies, as a 36-year-old, with still plenty left in the tank, especially at the end of the game.
The NBA’s 3-point revolution is only going to continue rising
Steph Curry and the splash brother Warriors changed the game of basketball over the last decade. Their offensive strategy was simple: three points are worth more than two, so why not focus on taking more three-point shots. This led to Daryl Morey’s Rockets to take this one step further, basically eliminating the two-point jumper from their game. That team set the NBA record when they attempted 70 three-pointers in a game last season.
This year, this emphasis on the three-pointer is only increasing. On Tuesday, Gregg Popovich’s Spurs tied a franchise-record with 20 made threes in their victory over the Clippers, while Terry Stotts’ Trail Blazers set their own franchise record with 51 three-pointers attempted. Patty Mills made eight huge threes for the Spurs, while CJ McCollum attempted 14 for the Blazers. NBA scores are increasing, and more threes are being attempted than ever before. Expect this trend to only continue in the future as analytics become a bigger part of the game.
Pascal Siakam is not playing like an All-Star, and the Raptors will miss the playoffs if he’s not
Pascal Siakam had a meteoric rise to greatness in the NBA. He came out of seemingly nowhere in 2019, and was awarded the Most Improved Player as a key piece to the Raptors Championship team. Last season, following Kawhi’s departure, Siakam took over the reins of the team, and did not disappoint, averaging just under 23 points and 7.3 rebounds on 50% shooting from the field. He led the Raptors to the two seed in the East, and was voted into his first all-star game as a starter, cementing himself as a top player in this league.
The Raptors were expecting him to continue to trend upward this year after signing him to a 4y/$130M extension a year ago. That hasn’t been the case, and the Raptors are struggling because of it. Siakam is averaging just 17.6 points on 41% shooting and has led the Raptors to an abysmal 1-5 record to open the year. He sat out the team’s December 31st contest against the Knicks, which has been the Raptors’ only victory this season. If the Most Improved Player can’t show some signs of improvement soon, the Raptors may be in for an extremely disappointing 2021 campaign in Tampa Bay.
The Indiana Pacers’ continuity is fueling their early season success
The Indiana Pacers were down six with 20 seconds left on Monday against the Pelicans. Victor Oladipo hit a three, forced a steal, and found Myles Turner who hit a huge three to tie it. The Pacers sent the game to overtime and would go on to win 118-116. The Pacers now sit at 5-2 and are currently tied for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Pacers finished fourth in the East last year, but were swept by the Heat in the first round. They made no notable moves in the offseason, which many saw as an acceptance of losing.
The Pacers brought back 98% of the team’s total minutes during the 2019-20 season, a staggering 9% more than the second-highest team, the Chicago Bulls. The GM of the Pacers, Chad Buchanan, saw something in the team he has in place and decided to run it back, hoping a new Head Coach would make enough of a difference. So far, that has turned out to be the right decision as their continuity has thrived early in the season while other teams are still figuring it out. The Pacers will be tested with eight straight Western Conference opponents over the next 16 days, including a tough five-game road trip next week.
Warriors are a legitimate threat in the West if they have this MVP-caliber Steph Curry
The Warriors have had a tumultuous start to their 2021 campaign. The offseason began with the news of star Klay Thompson being ruled out for the year with a torn Achilles in November. The team didn’t panic in the draft and stuck with James Wiseman as opposed to grabbing another guard to fill Thompson’s role. The team was hoping Andrew Wiggins and new acquisition Kelly Oubre Jr. would be able to carry the loss of Thompson. They haven’t…but that may not matter much.
Steph Curry dropped a career-high 62 points on Sunday in an upset over the Portland Trail Blazers. Curry looked better than he ever has in his 12-year career, which is quite an accomplishment for a 32-year-old with two MVPs, including the only unanimous one in league history. Steph put the team on his back Sunday night, sinking shots that appeared impossible to fall in. However, with the way the rest of the team is playing, Steph may have to continue to play at an MVP level if he wants any shot of returning to the postseason again this year.
The Warriors might have to expect inconsistency from Wiggins and Oubre all season at this rate, while Draymond Green is never a guarantee to help much offensively. The load will always fall on Curry to deliver this season. If the Warriors ultimately make the postseason this year, it will be due in no small part to the play of Curry, who could even have a shot at a third MVP award if this game marks the start of elite play from here on out.
Jaylen Brown’s emergence gives the Celtics an All-Star dynamic duo
Jaylen Brown was the fourth option on the Celtics last season. Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, and Gordon Hayward all took valuable touches away from Brown, which may have prevented him from truly breaking out. However, Hayward is now on the Hornets and Walker is on the shelf with an injury, so Brown is now emerging as the number two option for the Celtics right now, and quite frankly, is playing like the number one.
Jaylen Brown scored 31 points on 13/16 shooting on Sunday, including a clutch go-ahead three-pointer to put the Celtics up two with 34 seconds left. Brown is now averaging 28 points on an inconceivable 60% shooting from the field, and 42.5% from three over the first seven games of the year.
Alongside Tatum (who put up 24 points, 12 assists, and eight rebounds on Sunday along with the game-winning shot), the Celtics have one of the strongest and youngest dynamic duos in the league. Boston has a serious shot at taking down the Bucks, Heat, or Nets in the East not only this year but for years to come.
Christian Wood looks like the steal of free agency
Turmoil surrounded the Rockets this offseason. GM Daryl Morey stepped down, head coach Mike D’Antoni did not return, star Russell Westbrook was traded to the Wizards and face of the franchise James Harden publicly requested a trade — and Morey’s new team, the Philadelphia 76ers, are near the top of Harden’s list. This seems like a difficult offseason for a team to come away with a victory, but the Rockets found a way to do just that.
On the first day of free agency, the Rockets signed rising star Christian Wood to a 3y/$41M contract. Through Wood’s first four games, this is looking like an absolute robbery as Wood is averaging just under 24 points, 11 rebounds, and just over two blocks a game, while shooting a healthy 56% from the field. On Saturday without James Harden, Wood put up 20 points, 15 rebounds, and four blocks, leading the way to an upset victory over the Kings.
It seems like it’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when the Rockets trade James Harden. They’re bound to wait until they can get the AD or Paul George level package they’re searching for, and that may not be until the trade deadline when a team shows desperation like the Lakers and Clippers did for those superstars. But Harden will be traded, and the Rockets may have already found their replacement star on quite a bargain of under $14 million a year. Christian Wood, John Wall, and the pieces the Rockets can accumulate in a Harden trade may be enough to keep the Rockets in the playoff hunt this year, and for years to come.
The gritty Thunder are proving their bright future could be sooner than later
The Thunder may have been the biggest winner of the past offseason despite no intention of winning in 2020-21. The team made a surprising run into the postseason last year after it seemed as if they were blowing it up when they traded Russell Westbrook and Paul George for all the first-round picks last offseason. The team replicated that blueprint this offseason, trading just about everybody — even the guys they picked up in the initial trades — for picks, picks, and then more picks. The Thunder are loaded with draft capital, and appeared as if they were already looking towards next offseason. But their current roster has other plans.
People weren’t expecting much out of the Thunder, as many couldn’t name more than three guys on their team. Yet, the Thunder are playing very good basketball once again, this time led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Al Horford, George Hill, and a bunch of youngsters. OKC went into Orlando to face the 4-1 Magic and completely outplayed them in an impressive 108-99 victory. Six guys scored in double figures while two more were just a bucket away as the Thunder showcased their depth and toughness.
The Thunder likely won’t make the playoffs this year and they aren’t expected to. However, they have an influx of first-rounders over the next five drafts, and are playing at a very competitive level of basketball right now that should have Thunder fans not only excited for the future, but for their present, as well. Don’t be surprised if the Thunder are in the playoff hunt much sooner than most expected, maybe even by next season.
Chris Paul is the most underrated closer in the NBA
Wherever Chris Paul has gone, winning has followed. That isn’t a coincidence. CP3 is one of the best passers in NBA history who’s proven to make his teammates around him better. Not only has his IQ positively influenced his passing abilities on the floor, it’s also made him a leader and a prototype veteran player that uses wisdom and experience to beat his matchups and find different ways in every possession to put the ball in the basket.
His IQ has now transformed his mindset into being a cold-blooded killer. Time and time again, CP3 is making the plays at the end of the game to lead his team to victory. No matter if he’s wearing a white Clippers jersey, red Rockets jersey, blue OKC jersey, or orange Suns uniform, Paul can be witnessed putting the final touches on victories in the game’s most important moments. He doesn’t get enough credit for his clutch factor, but the film and stats show he’s a top-3 player during crunch time and steps up when it matters most.
Don’t be surprised if DC is the 1st NBA Playoff team to ever start 0-5
Washington got off to as bad of a start as possible, losing all five of their first five games of the season. Interestingly, Russell Westbrook played in four of them, and got a triple-double in each one, yet it wasn’t enough to translate to wins. With Westbrook sitting for the second time this season already, the Wiz finally got their first non-bubble win since the NBA season was suspended in March.
Even without suiting them up, Russ still had a positive impact on DC in this game as shown by him teaching some of the youngsters tips on reading the game and “rocking the baby” with Bradley Beal. It couldn’t have been expected for Russ to click with this new team right from the jump. Two of the most ball-dominant players in the league had never played a game together before. It was always going to take time for this team to get it together.
Now that they have Rui Hachimura back and balling as a Sophomore, along with a solid supporting cast around them, the Wiz have the roster that can contend (especially if they add a premier defender at the deadline). As they gain more chemistry and continuity, they can get over their early-season hurdles and potentially become the first team ever to go from 0-5 to clinching a postseason berth. If that would ever happen in the NBA, it would be a newly-constructed team like DC with early injuries they had to overcome in a season like 2020-21 where momentum can change as quick as ever without fans in the stands.