NBA’s biggest second half storylines

The All-Star break has finally come and gone. The second half of the NBA season starts Thursday evening.

This is the part of the regular season NBA fans look forward to. Some teams will be jockeying for seeding, and others will make the push to squeak in to the playoffs. These are the games that feel like they mean something, apart from potential playoff matchups.

So let’s dive right in to the NBA’s biggest second half storylines.

Games remaining

Okay, it’s misleading to call it the second “half.” This NBA season was heavily front-loaded in a way it hasn’t been in years. This could be the reason Jimmy Butler decided not to play a minute in the All-Star Game. That, plus the fact that he’s leading the league in minutes per game.

NBA Second Half

Jimmy Butler got the rest he asked for, but is catching flack for taking up an All-Star roster spot. (Photo by Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY Sports)

Every NBA team’s remaining schedule averages out to feature 25.3 remaining games. So 56.7, or 69 percent, of this season’s games were played before the All-Star break. All research indicates players actually enjoy playing the majority of their games before the break. This gives them the opportunity to rest up for the playoff push.

This rest is absolutely more important to some teams than to others. Take into account injuries, fatigue and minutes played, that short break could make the difference between an eight seed and watching the playoffs from the couch.

Longest and shortest remaining schedules

The Philadelphia 76ers, currently the the seven seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs have the most games left to play at 27. The Minnesota Timberwolves only have 21 games. It’s interesting that these two teams would be the extremes, considering their structures.

The 76ers are not only young, but they are notoriously injury-prone. This is the first season that Embiid has been able to stay on the court, Ben Simmons has finally been able to play after missing all of last season, and it is still very much up in the air whether or not Markelle Fultz can make his debut this year. But if they stay healthy, that youth and lack of fatigue could propel them upward in the standings.

The Timberwolves play hard, and they play often. As previously stated, Butler leads the league, playing 37.3 minutes per game. Karl-Anthony Towns plays 35.1 minutes, Andrew Wiggins plays 36.1 minutes, and the 32-year-old Taj Gibson plays 33.6 minutes. This is due not only to lack of bench depth, but also Tom Thibodeau’s starter-reliant coaching style.

Depending on one’s point of view, this either gives NBA fans more or less to look forward to.

Dallas Mavericks troubles

Over the All-Star weekend Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said on Dr. J’s podcast, “losing is our best option.” At 18-40, it certainly seems as if they are embracing the “tanking” philosophy. For those who are unaware, “tanking” is the not-so-subtle art of losing to secure a better pick in the draft.

Adam Silver, NBA commissioner and outspoken enemy of tanking, doled out a huge penalty for the statement on Wednesday. Cuban was fined $600,000 for “conduct detrimental to the league,” supposedly for the comment and as a retroactive punishment for lack of effort on the season.

NBA Second Half

Mark Cuban was fined $600,000 on Wednesday. (Photo by Getty Images)

Unfortunately, that’s not the only thing for which the Mavericks and Cuban are under fire. News also broke Thursday night about a sexual harassment and misconduct scandal within the organization. There have been multiple reports of inappropriate behavior, along with Cuban admitting that he kept on a Mavericks reporter after “two separate incidents of domestic violence.”

The fallout from the misconduct allegations has yet to be seen, but it’s something to keep an eye on regarding the future of the franchise. It will also be interesting to see how many games Dallas wins after being exposed for exhibiting low effort.

Cavs-Warriors Part IV?

Cavaliers

The Cavaliers were re-energized by a huge roster shake-up at the NBA trade deadline. Going into the second half, they are on a four game win streak. One win came with the pre-deadline roster, one came with a short-handed roster before the newly-acquired players were eligible to play, and two came with the new look roster.

The team is slightly younger, more defensively-minded and much quicker than its previous iteration. Two games is hardly a sample size at all, however. Common sense says they should continue to trend upwards, but they only have 24 games to build playoff-level chemistry.

Their main competition on the road to the NBA Finals are the Toronto Raptors and the Boston Celtics. These teams have the number one and number two records in the East, respectively. Cleveland made short work of both of these teams in last year’s playoffs. Toronto, however has grown as a team, and Kyrie Irving went from playing against Boston, to playing for them.

NBA Second Half

Golden State’s Draymond Green coaches the Warriors during their game against the Suns. (Photo by AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Warriors

Golden State has been having some struggles of late. They are currently the number two seed in the West. They are second to the Houston Rockets, their main competition. The Warriors are 7-5 in their last 12 games; hardly what fans have come to expect from a team with this much talent.

As a method of engaging his team, Steve Kerr even let his players coach during a win against the cellar-dwelling Phoenix Suns. This decision garnered much criticism from NBA players and pundits alike. They lost their next game against the Portland Trailblazers, despite Kevin Durant’s 50 points.

It’s a safe bet to pencil these two teams in for an historic fourth straight finals matchup. However, they both have more to prove before switching that pencil in for a pen.

Major awards

The second half of the season is where the NBA awards races really start to take shape. These awards are hotly contested this season, and it might just come down to the wire before voters decide for whom they will cast their ballot.

MVP

James Harden is currently the front-runner for the NBA MVP award. Fitting, since he was second in voting last year, but had the misfortune of being up against Russell Westbrook’s historic season.

LeBron James, Steph Curry, and Kevin Durant are also in contention. The voting will come down to their teams’ records and, of course, each player’s individual contribution. To see a more in-depth breakdown of the race, see the dedicated article here.

Rookie of the Year

This award is essentially a two man race.

Donovan Mitchell is averaging 19.6 points per game for the surging Utah Jazz. They have won 11 in a row in a push for the Western Conference’s eighth seed. He’s playing heavy minutes and contributing 3.5 rebounds and assists per game. But, what’s got the attention of the NBA is his athleticism. Winning the dunk contest as a replacement will also probably sway voters. If he continues scoring in the second half and dish out more assists, this award might be his.

His main competition is the 76ers’ Ben Simmons. Simmons is good for 16.4 points, 7.3 assists, and 7.8 rebounds per night. The points are obviously lower than Mitchell’s but the assist and rebound numbers are impressive for a rookie. Those numbers can and should come with the territory of being a 6-foot-10 point guard, however.

The problem is, in a league so in love with the three-pointer, he never shoots the long-range shot. He has taken just 10 threes, and has made none of them. Another potential reason Mitchell could sneak ahead in the polls is that his assist numbers are so low because he has one of the league’s best passers, Ricky Rubio, playing point guard on his team.

Defensive Player of the Year

Kevin Durant is squarely in contention for Defensive Player of the Year honors. His stats aren’t massively impressive, but the effort that does not show up on the stat sheet are the real reason he is in the conversation. Durant averages 0.8 steals per game, and 1.9 blocks per game with the Warriors. Being on a premiere defensive team also helps his cause.

NBA Second Half

Paul George, contender for Defensive Player of the Year, guards Victor Oladipo. (Photo by Getty Images)

Paul George of the Oklahoma City Thunder is the biggest roadblock between Durant and Defensive Player honors. George leads the league in steals, which is arguably the most important defensive stat. Robbing teams of possessions is a major key to winning games, and George does it more than any other player. His blocks sit at just 0.5 per game, but consider that he does most of his defending around the three-point line. That doesn’t lend itself to racking up blocks.

Coach of the Year

The obvious candidates for this award are Toronto’s Dwane Casey and Houston’s Mike D’Antoni.

They both are the owners of the best records in their conference. This is significant because neither of their teams were expected to be the number one seed going into the second half of the season. The Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors were supposed to have those honors. But neither coach need to own the one seed going into the playoffs to win the award.

D’Antoni’s Rockets have a prolific offense, and he has also managed to seamlessly integrate Chris Paul into the offense. The defense on his team is an afterthought, but it always has been on D’Antoni-coached teams. Casey’s Raptors own a top-10 defense and a top-10 offense. The roster has stayed intact through a tumultuous trade deadline, and the chemistry on the team shows from top to bottom.

Erik Spoelstra is also making his case for Coach of the Year. Miami currently sits at the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. With a less-than-stellar roster, if he can continue to manufacture wins through pure coaching, expect to hear his name when this award is mentioned.

Featured image by Winslow Townson/Associated Press

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NBA All-Star Game format a hit

This year had to be different. With the recent All-Star games in the NBA, fans were getting disinterested, as it was just a prolonged dunk contest. It failed to truly showcase how great the players partaking in the game were. NBA Commisioner Adam Silver and team captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry all stepped up to make the new NBA All-Star Game format work.

The Draft

2018 NBA All-Star Draft

All-Star Draft (Photo by: express.co.uk)

One conference playing another in any All-Star game was a great idea, before interleague play started happening in every professional sport. It allowed room for debate of who had the better players and which conference was better overall. It solved the great unknown questions of the era.

Those questions are, for the most part now answered.  Now teams get to play each other multiple times a year in the NBA and the Western Conference is deeper than the Eastern Conference. Players no longer take pride in their conference, but rather in their specific teams and themselves. The change to a draft format was necessary.

James and Curry treated the draft the right way, with James selecting Kevin Durant to start off the selections. Both tried to field teams that could win rather than picking players they were close with. Curry was unable to get his teammate, Durant, and James didn’t pick his teammate, Kevin Love, early at all.

The draft itself helped create some interesting matchups and combinations that fans now wonder about. James and Durant, the two best players in the league, were on the same team. James was reunited with teammate Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook and Durant were on the same team for the second straight season after Durant left the Oklahoma City Thunder.

As for matchups that were created, Dwayne Casey coached team LeBron and against his own players, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. Westbrook and Irving got to match up with Curry and Harden in a battle of the best guards in the league. When Team LeBron went small late in the game James got the pleasure of guarding Joel Embiid that created some great sequences.

The Effort and motivation

2018 NBA All-Star Game

Photo by: fatmouthsports.net

All the players had a lot to play for, as the winning team would get $350,000 to charity, while the losing team gets $150,000. While these aren’t great personal stakes, it gives the players something to take pride in.

This also helped create a sense of competitiveness around the game. The minutes weren’t split evenly as in past years. James played 31 minutes (as opposed to just under 20 in 2017), while Curry accumulated 26 minutes. Al Horford logged only 12 minutes and Goran Dragic was in for 11 minutes. (LaMarcus Aldrige played four minutes due to injury and Jimmy Butler sat out with sickness). While the West gave a lot of playing time last year to it’s starters, the East did not give anyone more than 24 minutes.

Not only were there more minutes played for the stars (overall), than most years, but they were on the court when it mattered. Team LeBron had their starters (with a minor concession of subbing Anthony Davis out for Paul George) on the floor at the end. Team Stephen put in Kyle Lowry and Draymond Green in at the end of the game in an effort to get a stop. Both teams gave themselves a chance to win because they put their best players on the court (or tried to) for whatever situation came up.

Another surprise was, players actually fouled to prevent baskets rather than running out of the way. There were 16 personal fouls in 2017. This year there were 26. That’s a perfect mix of making sure no one gets hurt from crazy fouls and actually trying for an All-Star Game.

The main thing that made this work was the defensive intensity. Last year there were 374 total points scored. This year the teams’ defense stepped up and only 293 total points were scored. Curry was held to 27% shooting from deep, while Harden was even worse at 15%. Staples Center did have some pretty stiff rims, but the defense was also a cause of the low shooting percentages this year.

The Finish

When it came down to the last quarter, it was apparent that both teams were actively trying to win, which isn’t always the case in an All-Star game. Timeouts were called to set up plays and, as mentioned before, the best lineups were put in for the best results.

At the very end it was Team LeBron storming back to take the lead 148-145. They needed a defensive stop against a team that was loaded with some of the best three point shooters in history. To end the game, James and Durant were able to trap Curry in the corner and prevent him from getting off a great shot.

That play capped of the best NBA All-Star game in years. If that wasn’t enough for fans, Adam Silver announced that the same format will be used next year, but that the draft will be televised. This should just generate more interest and competitiveness between players.

For once fans can get excited about All-Star weekend again.

 

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NBA All-Star

NBA All-Star Game predictions

You either love the NBA All-Star game, or you’re completely uninterested in it. There’s no real in between, and it’s not hard to understand why. Watching super-rich athletes engage in playground basketball with their friends is either exciting or nauseating.

NBA All-Star

Giannis Antetokounmpo dunks during the 2017 NBA All-Star Game. (Photo by Bob Donnan/USA Today Sports)

In the past, it’s basically been a continuation of the dunk contest. Once the player is past half court, the lane clears, and the man with the ball gets to show off. Last year’s All-Star game ended in a 192-182 victory for the West. To put that into perspective, the average score of a game last season was 105.6 points. That’s how little NBA All-Stars are interested in guarding their man.

Now, be well aware that these are the best scorers in the league, in most cases. And defense is not only less exciting than offense, but it takes more effort. The All-Star break is a rare occasion that these star players can get meaningful rest, it is what’s paramount to a successful back end to a season, and playoff runs. So working hard on the defensive end of the floor doesn’t quite make sense for them.

The problem is that the game doesn’t mean anything. There’s no competition because bragging rights are essentially irrelevant to these players. They have already proven they’re the best in the game by being chosen, so why try?

The new draft format and $100,000 cash prize are attempts at trying to remedy this issue. It’s unclear whether or not these changes will make any difference in competitiveness. But before evaluating and predicting, let’s look at the updated rosters.

Rosters

Team LeBron: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, LaMarcus Aldridge, Bradley Beal, Goran Dragic, Andre Drummond, Paul George, Victor Oladipo, Kemba Walker, Russell Westbrook

NBA All-Star

Westbrook and Durant will be on the same All-Star team for the second year in a row. (Photo by Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

Team Curry: Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, DeMar Derozan, Joel Embiid, James Harden, Jimmy Butler, Draymond Green, Al Horford, Damian Lillard, Kyle Lowry, Klay Thompson, Karl-Anthony Towns

Worth mentioning here is the fact that LeBron’s squad has lost four All-Star selections to injury. In the first year of the draft format, that’s not good. It’s especially bad considering all of the injuries came from the same team.

Also worth noting is that Westbrook and Aldridge missed four games between them in the last week. They will be ready for the All-Star Game, but that’s two more question marks for Team LeBron.

The replacements for injured players were not conference-specific. While in the past, someone from the same conference would have had to be chosen, this time it’s simply overall vote-getters. This probably led to the continued snub of Lou Williams, and Dragic sneaking his way in.

Team Curry

With all of his original players still in the lineup, Curry’s team has to be the favorite.

With Antetokounmpo, Derozan, Horford, Embiid and Towns, the team has tremendous length. And those of them who can’t slash to the bucket can certainly handle themselves around and beneath it.

Add in Curry and Harden, and that should be all the shooting they need. But, still, they have Butler, Lillard, Lowry and Thompson to pick up the slack. All of them can also get to the hoop, as well. But with the length on display, expect to see a lot of three-pointers from this team.

Team Curry is also being coached by Mike D’Antoni of the Houston Rockets. The Rockets have the best record in the NBA, and the most potent offense in the league. Not that a team of this many great players will need much coaching, but expect D’Antoni to draw up offensive set pieces consistently and try to win this game with 150-plus points.

Team LeBron

Again, this team has been decimated by injuries. Four have been replaced, and two more are reportedly not at 100 percent.

Those replacements have been: Paul George for DeMarcus Cousins, Goran Dragic for Kevin Love, Kemba Walker for Kristaps Porzingis and Andre Drummond for John Wall.

NBA All-Star

Kristaps Porzingis won’t participate after tearing his ACL on Feb. 6. (Photo by Adam Hunger/USA Today Sports)

These injuries have made the team markedly smaller. Porzingis’ and Love’s replacements cost the team almost two feet of length. Having Drummond in for Wall stops the bleeding a little, but Drummond is not effective more than five feet from the basket. Kevin and Kristaps are both big men who can shoot from anywhere, and rest assured they would be if they were playing.

Some NBA fans might like the current lineup better for one reason or another. The point of All-Star selections is that they are subjective. And in just one game, the pieces don’t necessarily have to fit perfectly to win. But, losing four bonafide All-Stars for players that were “the best of the rest” shouldn’t inspire confidence.

LeBron’s team is being coached by Dwane Casey of the Toronto Raptors, who have the best record in the East. A no-nonsense defensive coach is a definite shake up for the All-Star Game. If Casey holds the other squad to less than 140 points, he will have lived up to that reputation.

We all know that LeBron is tired of losing, but we’ll see if he can will his team to that $100,000 prize.

Effort

Speaking of $100,000, does it really matter to some of the richest athletes in the sport? These players not only have massive contracts, but they’re all so good that they have deals and endorsements and appearances to help bolster their bank accounts.

What many fans might not know, is each member of the losing team will get $25,000. So that narrows the net winnings to $75,000. Sure, it would be life-changing money for most people in the world, but is that $75,000 worth the effort to these players?

Players don’t want to sound ungrateful, or out of touch with the rest of the world. So odds are, all 24 of them would answer with some form of, “yes, of course it matters.” And I’m sure it would be nice to have $75,000 more than you had yesterday. Especially if you receive it for playing a game you play every single night. But the fans will never really know how interested the players are. It’s an exercise in futility to read into it too much. The players will give however much they want to on the court, end of story.

LeBron will be out there trying his best to win. Curry will, too. They did put these teams together, after all. They want to be seen as a better “fantasy” manager than the other. But with the injuries, LeBron’s team has an excuse if they lose, and Curry’s team has a small incentive to take things easy on defense.

NBA All-Star

Curry and James picked the All-Star teams, and will go head-to-head again in 2018. (Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

With the new format, this should be a more competitive game. It will still be high scoring, and there will still be more joking around than defensive pressure. But the winning team won’t be eight points shy of 200 this year.

Prediction

Team Curry wins, 163-148

This was an easy call to make. The shooting and athleticism on Curry’s team is overwhelming. LeBron’s team will show more effort, and with Coach Casey on the sidelines, will be more engaged on the defensive end. But in the end, the shooting is what will matter.

People will clear the lane for Antetokounmpo, Harden and Curry will take 15 three-pointers each, and Embiid will trash talk his way either into or out of America’s heart.

Featured image by Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

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NBA MVP candidates

Top 5 MVP candidates at the All-Star break

The NBA MVP field is crowded. With so many great players in the league, anyone’s argument on who should win is probably valid. This is why there has only been one unanimous MVP in the history of the NBA.

With more than half of the NBA season gone and the trade deadline passed, teams are taking the shape they’ll have going into the playoffs. Players are making the push to play their best basketball to secure seeding.

There are far more than five players that are deserving of being in the MVP conversation. Russell Westbrook is having a great season, DeMar DeRozan has made huge strides and Karl-Anthony Towns is becoming the player everyone thought he would be. But for the sake of brevity and exclusivity, here are the top five MVP-caliber players.

5. Giannis Antetokounmpo

The Greek Freak is setting the league on fire. His athleticism is, as his nickname suggests, nothing short of freakish. We’ve seen him get from the top of the key all the way to the rim in just three steps. And he dunks whenever possible.

In many ways, he’s the antithesis of what the NBA has become in the 2010s. He’s much more concerned with cutting or driving to the hoop than with shooting from deep. He does not take or hit many 3-pointers. In fact, he’s shooting just 28.6 percent from behind the arc this season.

NBA MVP candidates

Giannis Antetokounmpo jumps over Tim Hardaway Jr. for a dunk. (Photo by NBA via Twitter)

But that seems insignificant when compared to his other numbers. He’s scoring 27.6 points per game this season, which is up from 22.9 last season. He is collecting almost two more rebounds per game than last year at 10.4.

Since he gets to the rim so often, Antetokounmpo is shooting an insane 53.7 percent from the field. Those kinds of percentages are usually reserved for true centers that live underneath the basket.

He is no slouch on defense either. His blocks and steals both hover around 1.5 per game. Those numbers aren’t likely to trend downward in the back end of the season.

The Bucks are playoff-bound thanks in part to the kind of season Antetokounmpo is having. He’s solidly in contention for MVP honors, but in a shooting league, assists are becoming more valuable than ever. His assists per game will have to come up as he continues to score if he wants to upset the favorites.

4. LeBron James

It wouldn’t be an MVP conversation without mentioning The King.

LeBron is seemingly ageless. In his 15th year in the league, he’s still putting up numbers any player would love to have. His points per game is at 26.5, and his assists and rebounds are both above eight.

With all the success the new-look Cavaliers have had since the trade deadline, it isn’t crazy to think all three averages could get even higher. It’s a very small sample size, but the pieces Cleveland has in place now already seem to fit better than the previous ones. He has more shooters and better defenders to rob other teams of possessions. That virtually guarantees James will have the ball in his hands more.

The main thing James has going against him is the fact that NBA fans are used to this. He is perennially in the top five MVP candidates. Common sense says that continued greatness shouldn’t count against him. But James already has four MVP awards. It makes sense that voters would want to spread the wealth.

3. Kevin Durant

Kevin Durant’s points, rebounds and assists per game are all lower than LeBron’s, but he doesn’t play as many minutes as him. The only category that is up from his career average is assists at 5.5.

Durant definitely benefits from the fact that he’s on the best team in the league. All of the fantastic players around him actually make him look better, contrary to what one might think. His rejuvenated commitment to defense might also be a reason he sits so high on the list.

NBA MVP candidates

Kevin Durant won his MVP award in 2014 while he was with the Thunder. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

He is averaging almost one more block per game than his career average. The intangibles are also better than they have ever been. Watching him play speaks to that. Although the defensive numbers aren’t quite standouts, he plays hard on that end of the floor and challenges everything that his man puts up.

The assists and the unselfish play are the big stories here though. Golden State easily sits at the highest assists per game average, and Kevin Durant has bought in. He still gets his 25.5 points per game while feeding a team full of shooters.

Keep in mind that NBA broadcasters and sports writers vote for the MVP award. These are people that make their living watching NBA basketball. Their analyses will go deeper than numbers will indicate.

2. Stephen Curry

Another Warrior, and another perennial contender, Stephen Curry is having a great season despite some injury woes. He’s missed 15 games this season due to a nagging ankle injury.

That being said, he’s still putting up 26.8 points per game. That is three points better than his 2015 NBA MVP season, and only 3.3 points worse than his unanimous 2016 MVP campaign. Along with that, he’s collecting 5.2 rebounds at the point guard position. Golden State is relatively small to begin with, but that’s still pretty impressive.

Continuing with the Warrior trend of great shooters dishing out plenty of assists, Curry has been good for 6.5 per game. Again, that’s not massively difficult on a team full of shooters. But one of the greatest shooters passing up his shot to find a better one is MVP-caliber play.

He also benefits from being on a super team, but like James, Curry will be in the conversation every year. With his 3-point shooting abilities and his surprising ability to get to the hoop, he is an all-time great player. He also suffers a little from already having two MVPs under his belt, although that is still not as much as James. If he can stay healthy and grow his numbers, he has a real shot at a third.

1. James Harden

Harden had an MVP type of season last year. But he was unlucky enough to have it the same year Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double.

NBA MVP candidates

Harden does his signature “chef” celebration mid-game. (Photo by Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle)

This year is a different story. Harden is averaging 31.4 points, 2.3 points more than last year. His assists are down slightly from 11.2 to 9.0, but that was to be expected after adding one of the best passers in the league to the roster in Chris Paul. He also gets five rebounds at a guard spot, which isn’t shabby by any means. He’s also doing this while having missed seven games.

Dishing out almost double digit assists while still getting over 30 points per game is phenomenal. Harden has 11 games scoring over 35 points, including four games scoring over 50. If the Rockets can stay healthy and keep Harden, Paul and Capela on the court, his assists numbers will continue to rise.

Harden simply seems like the most deserving candidate. He has been the player that has put the Rockets on his back since he arrived in Houston. Even though he has Paul at the point guard position, he is still the focal point of the offense. Not to mention he has the ability to do Paul’s job when he’s on the floor without him.

Houston is thriving within their offensive system, but only because Harden continues to do his job with consistency. Being the top option on the team speaks to the most literal definition of the MVP award. Harden is the most valuable player on his team.

As long as he continues to play great basketball, this award is his to lose.

 

Featured image by Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

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NBA biggest storylines

Biggest storylines heading into the All-Star Break

The All-Star game serves as a reminder to observe the current NBA season as whole and the headlines that have circulated the NBA world. Here are the biggest storylines in the NBA to follow heading into the second half of the season.

Where do all the free agents sign this offseason?

Similar to last offseason, you can expect another exciting offseason with lots of high-profile free agents over the summer. The Lakers freed up cap room for two max contracts and are going to look to add to their young core.

The unrestricted free agents for this upcoming offseason include Kevin Durant, LeBron James, DeMarcus Cousins, Paul George, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, Isaiah Thomas, Aaron Gordon, Clint Capela, Jabari Parker, Carmelo Anthony, Avery Bradley, Zach LaVine and Tyreke Evans.

There’s no doubt that some players on this list are going to stick with their current teams, but a fair share of these players could bolt towards new horizons and change the shape of the NBA. This summer may be a turning point for franchises in the association.

Isaiah Thomas on the Lakers?

NBA biggest storylines

How will Isaiah react to coming off the bench after last year’s All-Star performance? (Photo by Lakers Nation) 

Once again, Isaiah Thomas was traded, this time in a blockbuster deal to the Lakers. The now brief fiasco that surrounded himself and the Cavs is now over. The 5-foot-9 offensive star is a two-time All-Star and finished fifth in MVP voting last season.

However, he’s going to be coming off the bench for the purple and gold. Lots of attention follows the Lakers. Lonzo Ball and Thomas don’t play great defense.

It should be interesting to see how the Lakers backcourt plays out the rest of this season.

Can the Cavaliers win the East?

The East has gotten increasingly tougher, and the Cavaliers are not the same team they once were with Kyrie Irving. While LeBron James is still having a great year, it remains to be seen if all their newly acquired players can change the locker room attitude and subpar basketball that has plagued Cleveland.

The new-look Cavs looked great in their first game, blowing out the Celtics on the road. But one game doesn’t define a season. The Raptors, Celtics and Wizards are all going to challenge the Cavs this postseason, and the Cavs aren’t going to have home-court advantage.

Who will be the first pick in the draft?

NBA biggest storylines

Where will Trae Young fall in the draft? (Photo by USA Today)

In what looks to be another stacked draft class, including Trae Young, Marvin Bagley, Luka Doncic and Deandre Ayton, who will go first off the board?

While my favorite player in the pack is Doncic, it could be any of the names mentioned that get their names called first.

Is James Harden the MVP?

James Harden is averaging 31.4 points, 9 assists and 5 rebounds per game while carrying the Rockets to the second seed in the Western Conference.

If Harden manages to stay healthy and continue on his torrid pace, it’s unlikely anyone can compete with him for the MVP trophy.

Can the Rockets beat the Warriors?

The Rockets have helped close the gap between the Warriors and the rest of the Western Conference. They’ve been nearly unbeatable when Chris Paul and James Harden are suited up and have the No. 2 offense in the league. The defense ranks in the middle of the pack at 15th. The Rockets have won the season series against the Warriors 2-1, and could end up with the first seed and home-court throughout playoffs.

If both teams manage to stay healthy, it’s likely these two will meet in the Western Conference finals. This Rockets team is going to be the first team to test the Warriors since Kevin Durant joined them.

Can the Warriors defend their title?

NBA biggest storylines

Will anybody beat the defending champions? (Photo from Billboard)

The Warriors have the best record in the NBA and an embarrassment of riches on their roster. Their bench play has not been up to par compared to years past. Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala have had down years for the Warriors. Patrick McCaw, Javale McGee and Nick Young have been underwhelming all season as well. Jordan Bell has also hit the rookie wall. Without David West holding down the second unit, this team struggles without its starters in.

It’s likely the Warriors haven’t stayed focused after reaching the NBA Finals for three years in a row. The dog days of the regular season can cause great teams to lose their intensity. The Warriors consistently don’t show up for games, they show up for quarters. Nonetheless, due to the amount of talent on this roster, that has been enough to win.

The Warriors will likely find their intensity come playoff time. However, for now they look like they’re going through the motions.

What is next for LeBron James?

LeBron James is a free agent once again, and no one knows where he is going to go. James displayed how frustrated he was with the roster before the deadline.

How do the trades change his approach for free agency? The teams that seemingly are rumored to be plausible for him to move to are the Rockets, Lakers and 76ers. There is a very strong chance James leaves Cleveland, again.

 

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LeBron James new team

Weighing LeBron’s most likely landing spots

LeBron James’ contract is up at the end of the season. He’s officially fulfilled his commitment to Cleveland. He delivered a championship to the long-suffering city in the most exciting NBA Finals of the past 10 years.

So that begs the question of where is his next stop?

The most interesting thing about this debate is that many teams are in limbo until James narrows down his list. Some teams are trading away players to guarantee the cap space, while others are loading up to lure him to their city. Still, others are gauging his interest to make the most calculated moves to prepare for either eventuality.

The entire league is waiting with bated breath to see where The King wants to take his talents next. No matter where he goes, the move will shake up the foundation of the NBA for the length of his new contract. He’s been tied to many teams through the rumor mill, but here are the most interesting propositions.

Los Angeles Lakers

Adrian Wojnarowski broke the news yesterday that the lakers are “shifting their focus to the 2019 free agent class.” That could mean a few things.

The most likely explanation is that James wouldn’t want to go to the Lakers without any bona fide stars on the roster. He’s carried teams to the playoffs and finals by himself before, and all signs indicate he’s on the quest for more rings.

LeBron James new team

LeBron James and Lonzo Ball share a postgame hug. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

If he signs there at the seasons’ end, James will be alone with Lonzo Ball and Larry Nance Jr., who are not huge draws. James might want the team to bring in some talent before he commits. Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson are all names that appear to be on Magic Johnson’s shortlist.

It could also mean that Johnson isn’t positive he can reel in James at all, and that he doesn’t want to trade away assets and clear massive cap space to pull in someone who may not be interested.

Leaving the cap open also allows them to go in a different direction. The Lakers could pull two or maybe even three stars after next season, letting James go his own way.

James owns homes in Los Angeles, and it’s well-known that he wants to make a transition to Hollywood after his NBA career is over. Pair that with the Lakers’ storied history and their ability to draw in free agents, and it’s hard to believe the team would not go after him with everything they’ve got.

But consider the possibility that James goes to another team on a max deal, with an opt-out clause after the first year. If things don’t go according to plan in his new city, he could exercise that option. Assuming Johnson can pull in a superstar, then the door is open for James to put on the purple and gold.

It’s messy and complicated, but Magic Johnson has the star power to get this done.

San Antonio Spurs

San Antonio’s championship window is closing. The team is old, and their three best players’ contracts expire after next season.

There is one sure-fire way to get them to re-sign, possibly even for less money. That way includes signing LeBron James.

LeBron James new team

Gregg Popovich and LeBron James congratulate each other after Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals. (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images)

A team including LaMarcus Aldridge, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James, coached by Gregg Popovich, is an instant title contender. Age and bench players be damned, that team could compete with any team in the league. Pau Gasol will be pushing 40 by the time his contract is up, but just ask Manu Ginobili how Coach Popovich can keep up old players’ efficacy.

Keep in mind that James has never had a coach anywhere near as good as Popovich. As he gets older and has to start becoming more of a system player rather than a one-man wrecking crew, coaching goes a long way.

This all hinges on the idea that James can draw in some young talent to one of the least exciting basketball cities in the country. Leonard and Aldridge would also have to re-sign. But their tradition of excellence makes it hard to completely count the Spurs out of contention.

Philadelphia 76ers

The 76ers are a very interesting dark horse candidate to land LeBron James. They have a breadth of young talent and the most cap space in the NBA at over $75 million.

The potential to be very good for a long time could be a huge draw for James. It also would allow him to be a leader and a mentor to the young guys on the team. That would be a complete 180 degree turn from his current situation with the Cavaliers.

The problem here is that none of the players are established enough to prove to him that Philadelphia would put him in a position to win more titles. Ben Simmons is firmly in contention for Rookie of the Year, but he has an injury history, and the sample size is tiny.

The same goes for Joel Embiid. He’s been injured constantly and just played in back-to-back games for the first time on Feb. 2 and 3. Markelle Fultz is also injured and has seemingly forgotten how to shoot the basketball.

Again, the key here is the 76ers’ cap space. The contracts there are extremely manageable, and if the young players can stay healthy, they can be doubly useful, either as trade bait or pieces of the team’s success moving forward. The ability to sign players that James likes to play with has been a huge part of his decisions in the past. However, Philadelphia is still a couple of years away from being true contenders in the East.

New York Knicks

James has been in the Eastern Conference since he entered the NBA. Staying in the East would more than likely set him up for the most success moving forward. He knows every team in the league inside and out, but playing with a similar travel schedule will be more important as he gets older. The Knicks check that box.

LeBron James new team

James shoots over Kristaps Porzingis. (Photo by: Brad Penner/USA Today Sports)

New York City is the Mecca of basketball. Playing at Madison Square Garden 41 nights out of the year would be beyond compare for someone who as aspirations to become the greatest NBA player of all time. Delivering a championship to New York could very well solidify that position.

Kristaps Porzingis is out for the year, and ACL tears are a notoriously difficult injury. But given his skill set, there is no reason to believe he won’t come back 100 percent. Porzingis would be a huge draw to James if he does indeed come back strong.

Apart from The Unicorn and the city, there is little else to convince anyone that James will be a Knick. The front office is a mess, and the team has little to no direction at the moment. James could fix the latter, but this move is unlikely at best.

Los Angeles Clippers

Another Los Angeles team has LeBron James sized aspirations.

Dumping Blake Griffin’s contract off of the payroll was a major first step towards landing The King. If the Clippers deal DeAndre Jordan as well, the cap space will be wide open for a max deal. Plus, the organization also just announced that they are re-signing Lou Williams. Williams and Patrick Beverley could create a sneaky-good backcourt, although the team would still lack talent.

But still, they are a Los Angeles team. The city alone guarantees people will want to play for the Clippers. If Paul George truly does want to play in Los Angeles, who is to say he has to play for the Lakers? George and James would more than fix the frontcourt issues. Also, delivering a championship to a team that’s never seen the Western Conference Finals could cement the status James is chasing.

However, as with the Lakers, trading away assets on the promise of potential signings might not be the way to go. James wants to win now and often. Jockeying to sign him may have just taken them out of the conversation.

Houston Rockets

Now for the most likely candidate. Houston may very well have the pieces to beat Golden State right now. Add LeBron James to the team and you have a competitive Western Conference again. The problem for the NBA, however, is that the NBA Finals would be little more than a formality.

LeBron James new team

James Harden guards LeBron James. (Photo by David Liam Kyle/Getty Images)

Regardless, playing with James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela would be huge for James. After all, playing with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh alone worked out well for him. The pieces the Rockets have are better than that Miami Heat team.

Some NBA fans, however, think playing with stars tarnished James’ legacy. He has made it clear he is uninterested in those opinions, but it could play a part in deciding not to play on a super team.

Also, to clear the cap space, the bench would more than likely suffer immensely. James won’t be able to average 36.8 minutes a game forever. Harden and Paul could lighten the load, but not significantly.

But James wants rings, as many as he can get. The move to Houston would give him the best chance to win more of them.

 

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Three-Point Contest

2018 JBL Three-Point Contest preview

The upcoming JBL Three-Point Contest will take place during NBA All-Star Weekend on February 18th in Los Angeles, CA at the Staples Center. It was originally introduced in 1986 with Boston Celtics legendary small forward Larry Bird winning the inaugural contest. He is also tied with former Chicago Bulls shooting guard Craig Hodges for the most wins in the event with three each.

The rules of the event are pretty simple. Eight contestants compete against each other to see who the best shooter is. There are five shooting racks placed around the three-point arc. Four of these five racks contain four regular basketballs worth one-point and one multi-colored ball worth two points. One rack is filled with all multi-colored money balls, called the “money rack”. This rack is placed at the shooters discretion at one of the five locations on the arc. All of these balls are worth two points. Each shooter gets one minute to shoot as many of the 25 balls as they can, starting from one side of the court all the way to the other.

The order of the shooters is selected randomly, the only exception being that the returning champion will go last. The top three scores from the first round advance to the finals, where they shoot again to see who the winner is.

Now let’s meet our eight contestants:

Eric Gordon

Houston Rockets shooting guard Eric Gordon will try to repeat as champ after winning last year contest over Boston Celtics’ point guard Kyrie Irving. The nine year veteran out of Indiana is one of the best bench scorers in the NBA, averaging 19.1 points per game.

The 2016-2017 Sixth Man of the Year winner has made 146 three’s on the year, which is sixth-most in the NBA currently. He is shooting 33.6 percent on three’s this year for the Rockets, who are second in the Western Conference currently.

Devin Booker

The Phoenix Suns’ shooting guard is currently putting up career high numbers, averaging 24.1 points per game. The third-year player from Kentucky is one of the best scorers in the league, currently 12th overall, ahead of ahead other stars such as Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, and Victor Oladipo.

Last year he had a 70 point game in TD Garden in a loss to the Boston Celtics. He was the 11th player of all-time to score 70 or more points in a game.

The young star is making 2.6 three’s a game while shooting 38.1 percent from deep. He previously competed in this contest as a rookie in 2015-2016, losing in the final round to Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors.

Klay Thompson

The two-time NBA champ is back competing in the JBL Three-Point Contest for the fourth year in a row. The 2015-2016 winner is one of the best two-way shooting guards in the NBA. He routinely guards the best guard on the other team while also averaging 20.3 points per game. He is leading the association in three-point percentage at 45.2. He is averaging 3.3 three’s a game for the pace and space Golden State Warriors. He is second in the league with 170 three’s made, only trailing Houston Rockets guard James Harden.

He has already cemented himself as one of the best shooters of all time with his picture perfect stroke and will try to win another trophy. He is tied for the record for most points scored in a round with teammate Stephen Curry with 27 out of the possible 34 points. He did that back in 2015-2016.

Bradley Beal

The star shooting guard for the Washington Wizards is back in the contest for second time, originally competing in the 2013-2014 contest that Italian legend Marco Belinelli won. He is averaging a career high in points this year, scoring 23.8 points per game for a Wizards team that has somewhat struggled so far this year.

He is shooting 37.4 percent from the three-point line so far this season, and has made a total of 126 three’s. Beal is also a first-time All-Star this year in now his sixth season out of Florida.

Paul George

One of the best small forwards in the NBA, Paul George and the Oklahoma City Thunder seem to have figured things out after a rough start to the year, sitting in 5th place in the Western Conference. George is currently leading the league in steals with 2.2 per game while also continuing to score well, averaging 21.7 points per game. He is fourth in three-pointers made with 160, and is 15th in percentage at 42.3 percent.

He has been one of the best swingman in the league since getting drafted 8 years ago from Fresno State in the 2010 NBA Draft. This will be his second time competing in the contest.

Wayne Ellington

Wayne Ellington has been known to be one of the best bench three-point specialists in the league since entering it in 2009 as a 1st round pick of the Minnesota Timberwolves. In the past two years with the Miami Heat, the ninth-year shooting guard has really exploded.

After making career high 149 three’s last year, Ellington has already broken it with 159 threes this year, fifth overall in the NBA. He is also averaging a career high 11.3 points per game while shooting 39.8 percent from beyond the arc. He has been a very good role-player for a surprising good Miami Heat team, who are currently sitting seventh in the East.

Kyle Lowry

The four-time All-Star point guard for the Toronto Raptors will be competing in his third straight three point contest. He has lost the previous two years, in 2016 to Klay Thompson and last year to Eric Gordon. Kyle Lowry has steadily improved his game over his 12 year career, going from back-up to starter to star.

The all-around point guard is averaging 16.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game while shooting 38 percent from deep. He has made a total of 140 three’s on the season. He and shooting guard DeMar DeRozan have helped lead the Toronto Raptors to 2nd place in the Eastern Conference so far this year.

Tobias Harris

The recently acquired small forward for the Los Angeles Clippers is having a career year, averaging 18.2 points per game between the Clippers and the Detroit Pistons. He is also shooting a career high 41.1 percent from downtown. He is also a player who has improved more and more each year at different aspects of his game.

After riding the bench his first year and a half in the league with the Milwaukee Bucks, he was shipped to the Orland Magic in the J.J. Redick deal. The Magic put him in the starting lineup and he has become a really good small forward since. He has made 116 three’s on the year, which is already a career high. This is his first time competing in the contest.

Luca’s Prediction: Wayne Ellington

Three-Point Contest

Waynee Ellington celebrates after hitting a 3 (Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)

This might seem like a surprise pick in a stacked field, but Wayne Ellington has a quick release and shot to win this contest. I believe he will continue adding on to a career year and take home the 2018 JBL Three-Point Contest trophy.

 

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NBA Western Conference contenders

Ranking biggest threats to the Warriors in the West

It isn’t news that the Western Conference is absolutely stacked.

The Warriors are far and away the best team in the league, let alone the West. But as we saw in the 2016 NBA Finals, even the best team in NBA history can go down swinging. All it takes is four bad games in May or June and all the regular season success is a complete wash.

So let’s rank the biggest threats to Golden State’s dynasty before the All-Star weekend.

Honorable mention: New Orleans Pelicans

Until recently, the Pelicans could have ranked as high as No. 2 on the list of potential problems for the Warriors.

NBA Western Conference contenders

Cousins tore his achilles tendon Friday night against the Rockets. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

But with DeMarcus Cousins out for up to 10 months after his brutal achilles tear against the Rockets Friday night, those hopes are all but dashed. In fact, not many would be surprised if they miss the playoffs entirely.

 

Their strengths against Golden State were squarely rooted in Cousin’s and Anthony Davis’ ability to team up and take over the paint on both sides of the floor. A four-game series against those two could at least wear almost any team down, if not eliminate them. The Pelicans also have the second best shooting percentage in the league. That’s a potent combination.

Davis and open looks won’t be enough to take down the Warriors’ four All-Stars. Couple that with the team’s lack of playoff experience and fourth-worst turnover margin per game, and it’s a long shot at best.

4. Minnesota Timberwolves

The Timberwolves are perhaps the best story in the Western Conference.

They have a gritty head coach who rose up through the ranks despite not playing a minute in the NBA. Jimmy Butler is a top-tier trash-talker and can back it up with his play. Karl-Anthony Towns continues to emerge as a premiere offensive weapon. Taj Gibson is finally stretching the floor, Andrew Wiggins has insane potential and Jamal Crawford is one of the best sixth men in the history of the game.

As exciting as all of that is, it’s probably only good enough to steal a game or two away from Golden State.

Towns being able to stretch the floor will give Zaza Pachulia and JaVale McGee fits, but the depth of the Warriors bench is nothing short of historic. Minnesota’s bench has potential, but it won’t be able to keep Golden State in check. This squad has potential, and they will definitely make the Western Conference playoffs. But it is most definitely a few years away from dethroning the champs.

3. San Antonio Spurs

Counting out the San Antonio Spurs is like counting out the New England Patriots. Anyone who has watched the NBA since 1999 will tell you that. The NBA’s version of Bill Belichick can outcoach anyone in the league, seemingly at will.

NBA Western Conference contenders

Leonard, Diaw and Popovich gameplan against the Warriors. (Photo by Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY Sports)

The Spurs’ problems are obvious. First of all, losing Kawhi Leonard is a massive blow to any title aspirations. He might be the most balanced two-way player in the league. At 100 percent, he is easily one of the NBA’s top five players. There is no set timetable for his return, but it’s entirely possible that he comes back in time for the playoffs.

 

The other things standing in the way are age and pace of play. The Warriors like to speed up the pace offensively and get in transition quickly on defense. That should not at all inspire confidence, considering the Spurs slower, more deliberate style of play. This was entirely too obvious when they were swept by Golden State in the Western Conference Finals last year.

But the playoff experience on the team is hard to ignore. Manu Ginobili is still playing well off of the bench at age 40, and Tony Parker can still contribute at age 35. The younger talent is stepping up, and, as previously stated, Leonard is an absolute game changer if he can make it back in time for the playoffs.

Gregg Popovich isn’t done until he’s done.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder

An underachieving Thunder team is still a possible issue for Golden State.

The biggest discrepancy between the two teams is the coaching. At 29-20, a lot of the blame for OKC not living up to its full potential is falling on third-year head coach Billy Donovan. Some of it is for his unwillingness to shake up the starting lineup, but also because of his inability to break Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony of their ball-hogging habits.

NBA Western Conference contenders

Oklahoma City’s big three. (Photo by Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman)

We already know Steve Kerr can handle four All-Stars on one team, and has his team’s full support. Another thing he does exceptionally well is convince his players to move the ball. Golden State is first in the league in assists. The Thunder are 25th. That will undoubtedly swing the score in the Warriors’ direction.

 

However, Oklahoma City is first in steals, led by Westbrook and Paul George. Robbing Golden State of possessions is a massive key to beating them. Even though the “OK3” haven’t set the league on fire, it’s still hard to count out these players in any given game.

We all know Westbrook can take over a game at any given moment. George is shooting well and is a serious contender for Defensive Player of the Year. Anthony can still score with the best of them, he just needs to be willing to play off the ball more.

The second half of the season will be the real litmus test for this team. Don’t get excited, but don’t leave them for dead, either. As long as they get a decent seed in the Western Conference, they have an outside chance to pull off an upset.

1. Houston Rockets

This was an obvious choice.

The Rockets are first in both 3-pointers attempted and 3-pointers made. They’re third in free throws attempted and second in free throws made. They boast the NBA’s third-highest assist per game average. They are also second in points per game to, you guessed it, the Warriors.

Simply speaking, they are an incredible offensive group. Houston is the epitome of what the NBA has become in the 2010s. Led by one of the NBA’s best offensive minds, this team is easily the Warriors’ biggest roadblock.

During its first game this season, they beat Golden State by one point. On Jan. 20, the Rockets beat the Warriors by eight points. They were quick to tout their confidence in being able to overtake them in the playoffs. This may have been just a tactic, but one can’t deny it’s certainly possible. They are, after all, the only team that can keep up with the amount of threes Golden State can hit.

Until Friday night, the Rockets were unbeaten when Chris Paul, James Harden and Clint Capela all suit up. Now 19-1 with its best players on the court, Houston knows what it has to do to win, and what they can adjust when they’re being overtaken.

Golden State does have a couple things on Houston, however.

Houston has to play Golden State’s game, which usually ends up being a disaster for anyone who tries it. Although they can probably match the Warriors for most of the game, if the shots stop falling, that spells disaster for the Rockets.

They also can’t rely on defense like the Warriors can. Since Houston plays so quickly, defense is essentially an afterthought. They can outscore most teams, so that’s not usually a problem. Golden State, however, is a completely different animal. Especially considering its bench depth.

It will be difficult. If they do take down Golden State, it will almost definitely have to be in seven games, meaning Houston will have to play the winner-take-all game in Oakland. But it is much more likely for them than the other 15 teams in the Western Conference.

With no more regular season matchups to watch, we’ll all just have to wait and see.

 

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NBA All-Star game snubs

2018 All-Star Game snubs and surprises

The 2018 All-Star game starters and reserves are set. We don’t know what color jerseys the players will be wearing, but we do know who will be wearing them.

So it’s time to cue the profanity-laced tweets and cries of “popularity contest.” Let the fans’ opinions on how to fix this defense-free contest both somehow simultaneously be heard and spectacularly ignored. Let’s bask in the interminable glory of four Warriors starters making the roster for the second year in a row. At least they might be playing on different teams this time.

The newly implemented draft system was meant to be an exciting way of adding an air of competitiveness to the game. Ask the NFL how that worked out for them.

What’s more is the fans won’t even get to watch the draft. The rosters will be announced on Thursday on an extended edition of TNT’s Tip-Off program.

Regardless of anyone’s feelings, the stage is set. So after we take a look at how voting is counted, let’s break down the biggest snubs and surprises from the All-Star game selections.

All-Star game voting

The voting for starters is split between fans, players and media. The fans votes make up 50 percent, while the players and media both account for 25 percent.

NBA All-Star Game snubs

Leaked All-Star Game jerseys are drawing bad reviews from fans (Photo by Conrad Burry)

The three frontcourt players (regardless of small forward, power forward or center designations) and the two guards with the highest combined vote totals in each conference are selected as the starters.

 

Starters: Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid, James Harden and Kyrie Irving

The All-Star game reserves are chosen by the NBA coaches. They are asked to choose three frontcourt players, two guards and two more players at any position. These players have to be in the coach’s conference, and cannot be players on their own team.

The backcourt and frontcourt players with the highest vote total are selected. Then, the two extra players are chosen by votes, and position preference stated on the coaches’ ballots.

Reserves: Kyle Lowry, Bradley Beal, John Wall, Victor Oladipo, Kevin Love, Kristaps Porzingis, Al Horford, Damian Lillard, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Russell Westbrook, LaMarcus Aldridge, Draymond Green and Karl-Anthony Towns

Biggest snubs

Paul George

NBA All-Star game snubs

Paul George snubbed from All-Star game despite his great defensive season (Photo by Russ Isabella/USA TODAY Sports)

Paul George has been a part of a rocky experiment in Oklahoma City. At 27-20, the Thunder are currently the fifth seed in a tough Western Conference, but with their big three, one can’t help but think they are underachieving.

 

George is having a monstrous defensive season. While defense is not quite at a premium during the All-Star game, it isn’t like his offense is suffering because of it either. George is leading the league in steals at 93, and is still averaging almost 21 points per game. He’s also shooting the 3-pointer well at 42.2 percent.

In an offense dominated by two ball-hogs, that’s not bad. And many people, Russell Westbrook included, think it should have been enough to earn him a spot on the reserve roster.

Lou Williams

Lou Williams has been a revelation off the bench during the first half of the season. He’s shooting 45.1 percent from the field, and hitting 40.5 percent of his 3-pointers (of which he takes a lot). He’s averaging about 32 minutes, again, off the bench, and has had 14 games scoring over 30 points. That includes a 50-point game against Golden State, a team known for its defense as much as its offense.

Some claim that playing starters’ minutes off the bench was actually a mark against him during All-Star voting, but it also speaks to his willingness to be a team player. Those intangibles coupled with those numbers are the makings of an All-Star.

Chris Paul

Chris Paul has been pretty famously banged up this season. What most people may not realize, however, is that Paul has played in over half of the Rockets’ games this season.

When he plays, they win. Period.

When Paul has suited up this season, the Rockets have gone 23-5. When Paul, Clint Capela and James Harden are all in the lineup, the Rockets are 17-0. That’s a testament to his leadership and court vision.

Paul is averaging 19.1 points per game and 8.9 assists per game. He is also averaging a career-high 5.9 rebounds per game.

Of course, his assist numbers would be higher if the Rockets could stay healthy, but 8.9 isn’t too shabby for a team that takes as many jumpers as Houston does.

Andre Drummond

NBA All-Star game snubs

Drummond is upset he was left out of the All-Star Game reserves (Photo by Gregory Shamus, Getty Images)

Finally, Andre Drummond was left out of the All-Star game reserves. He is averaging 14.3 points and 15 rebounds per game, with the rebounds being the league’s best.

 

His free-throw shooting percentage is also up an incredible 24.3 percent, which is significant for one of the NBA’s worst at the line. His 3.9 assists per game are also up from his career average of one. Not too bad for a true center.

Drummond has been pretty vocal about his displeasure towards being left out of the All-Star roster. You can see exactly what he thought if you visit his Twitter page, as long as you’re not at work, that is.

Biggest surprises

Al Horford

The Celtics’ center Al Horford somehow made it on to the All-Star game reserve roster averaging just 13.3 points, and less than eight rebounds per game. Although his assist totals are slightly higher than Drummond’s, he’s also more of a stretch player than Drummond is.

He ventures outside the 3-point line much more than some other centers, which could have been seen as an asset. That opens the door to more passing lanes than living under the basket does.

He’s also playing almost the exact same number of minutes as Drummond is on a better team. That alone lends itself to not really having to lean on Horford as much as Detroit has had to lean on Drummond.

This isn’t a completely unwarranted All-Star game appearance. It perhaps is just an example of bias towards a more complete team.

Guards over forwards

As stated in the voting section, the two “wild card” spots on the reserve roster are given to which ever kind of player the coaches would prefer to have on the teams. Those spots in both conferences went to guards.

It’s not totally shocking, seeing as how the league has changed to rely on quickness and 3-pointers. But if the fans are supposed to believe that NBA coaches are all as committed to defense as they say they are, that should probably show up in the All-Star game. You would expect them to be favoring blocks and paint presence over quick hands and pull-up jump shots.

Watchability

In conclusion, 2018’s All-Star game just might be more watchable than previous iterations. The draft is a fun experiment, even if it doesn’t quite work out. And it’s already proven itself useful if all four Warriors don’t end up on the same side.

Even though the jerseys may be terrible, and the draft is not televised, it’s important to remember that the league is trying new things. The NBA isn’t ever going to make everyone happy with the All-Star game, especially the players. No matter how selection is done, there will always be players who are vocal about not being on the roster.

There will always be fans claiming that none of it matters anyway, or about how their voice is not heard enough. But it’s a tradition, and it is the very nature of traditions to be divisive.

Either way, N.E.R.D is playing the halftime show. That should be enough of a reason to tune in.

 

Featured image by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

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The Best 3-point Celebrations in the NBA

The evolution of the 3-point shot over the last decade has truly been remarkable. It has changed the game tremendously and placed the emphasis on a pace-and-space offense in today’s game. This is the type of offense the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers run. If you notice, those are four of the best teams in the NBA, and it is because their offenses are efficient and high-scoring.

The main point of these offenses is to try and take a lot of layups, dunks and 3-point shots, while eliminating the mid-range game. Since these types of offenses are becoming the new norm, that means there of plenty of 3-point shots being attempted and made. With so many 3-point makes, this allows for more opportunities to celebrate a make. Let’s look at the 10 best 3-point celebrations, in no particular order, by current NBA players.

Wesley Matthews bow and arrow

Let me start by saying this is my personal favorite. It is so simple, but also extremely effective.

The reason I like this the most is that Matthews does this celebration after every single attempt, no matter the score or the time in the game. Some of the celebrations that I go over only come out in big moments, but Matthews is consistent with his dedication to the celebration.

The three-and-D wingman from the Dallas Mavericks has a career 38.3 3-point percentage and over 1,300 three’s in his NBA career. This celebration originated while he was with the Portland Trail Blazers in a game in 2014 and has carried over until now.

In many cases when he makes a three, the Dallas bench will also erupt and shoot arrows in response.

(Jamal Murray, a second-year shooting guard for the Denver Nuggets, also does this celebration but Matthews started it first and has been doing it longer.)

Russell Westbrook holster the guns

Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook’s celebrations are just as primal and ferocious as his dunks.

Even though Westbrook is a prolific offensive player who can score at will, he is not the best three-point shooter. In fact, most would consider him to be below average with a career average of 31.3 percent from three. This does not mean he hasn’t hit some HUGE three’s in his career, which leads to the celebration at hand.

Westbrook enjoys to pretend he is a wild west cowboy, and instead of guns he holsters three fingers.

Jason Terry gotta jet

Although TNT analyst and former Houston Rocket great Kenny Smith is known as “The Jet,” Jason Terry is known for the celebration where he pretends to be a jet.

The current Milwaukee Bucks shooting guard is enjoying his 19th year in the NBA. He has been mostly a secondary piece on multiple playoff teams. He won a championship in 2011 with the Dallas Mavericks over the Miami Heat’s super team.

During that playoff run, his 3-point “jet” celebration became popular. I remember copying the celebration while playing basketball in eighth grade. (But I only did it in practice, because I played like 20 total minutes the whole season).

D’Angelo Russell ice in his veins

D’Angelo Russell has had an inconsistent career so far, but he has shown the potential to be an explosive scorer and offensive player.

What has been the most consistent part of Russell’s career is his absolute fire celebrations. After hitting a late three-pointer in a 39-point performance with the Lakers, he pointed to his veins to show everyone they were filled with ice.

Recently back from injury, it’s good to see the now Brooklyn Nets point guard back on the court.

Although he hasn’t had the chance to break out this celebration yet this season, you can count on it at some point in the second half of the year when he is fully healthy and back to playing like he was pre-injury.

Danilo Gallinari “bellissimo”

Danilo Gallinari is the best Italian ever to play in the NBA. He has been long considered one of the better secondary scoring options in the league when healthy, which has been a problem for him over the past few years.

Gallinari has averaged 15.3 points per game in his career and has shot over 36 percent from deep.

In a game against the Utah Jazz two years ago, Gallinari broke out the Italian kiss celebration after hitting a three that effectively put the nail in the coffin for the game.

The Italians have a flair for the dramatic, which means when Gallinari bangs a shot in a big moment, watch out for the kiss.

James Harden stir the pot

Originally the dance of rapper Lil B, Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden has adopted the celebration into his own.

Harden finished second in the MVP race last year and is one of the contenders again this year. He has had plenty of moments to break out the celebration.

He usually breaks it out when he goes on a personal scoring run by himself or when he hits a big-time three down the stretch. You will see the MVP candidate stir up something special.

Carmelo Anthony 3 to the head

One of the most recognizable and classic celebrations in the NBA, Carmelo Anthony’s 3 to the head celebration is as good as it gets. Take the 3-point fingers and bang them against your head a few times and you are instantly Melo.

The former NBA scoring champ and current small forward for the Oklahoma City Thunder popularized the celebration in Madison Square Garden while with the New York Knicks.

It is as swaggy of a 3-point celebration as you are gonna get.

J.R. Smith celebration of any kind

This is sort of cheating, but any 3-point celebration J.R. Smith has broken out has burned down the arena, so I felt I had to include more than one.

Smith is a mercurial shooting guard for the Cleveland Cavaliers. He is one of the streakiest shooters in the NBA.

Once he gets hot, watch out, because he will pull threes and hit from anywhere.

Here are his three best celebrations to date

He has skipped down the court, which is quite simple, but very swag if done right.

He has played an air guitar solo at center court after hitting a deep three while with the Knicks.

Finally, he has 3-point strutted all the way down the court after hitting a three over Kobe Bryant in the 2009 Western Conference Finals.

J.R. is a national treasure and must be protected at all costs.

Dion Waiters crossed arms

Dion Waiters is another player who is one of the streakiest love-hate players in the NBA. He told his Syracuse teammates to refer to him as “Kobe Wade.” He did this because he thinks of himself as a combination of all-time shooting guards Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant.

His confidence level is always sky high, no matter if he is 0-for-11 or 11-for-11 from the field.

The Miami Heat shooting guard broke out his stare down celebration after hitting the game-winning three against the Golden State Warriors in the 2016-17 regular season.

“If anybody would hit a game winner against me, it would be Dion Waiters”  -Kevin Durant

LeBron James load the glock

Last, but not least, is one of the most electric celebrations I have ever seen. It was during the 2015 NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors.

LeBron James brought down the house after hitting a late 3-pointer and then capped it off my locking and loading his imaginary glock.

Although the Cavaliers eventually lost this Finals series, we did get one of the best three-point celebrations of all-time.

 

BONUS: Best celebrations for missed shots

                  Nick “Swaggy P” Young                                               Kemba Walker

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All GIFs above courtesy of GIPHY.com

Featured photo by Getty Images

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