NBA Western Conference Playoffs

Why each Western Conference team can and can’t win the NBA Finals

It truly is the “Wild Wild West” when it comes to the hunt for the NBA Finals.

We are only six days from the start of the playoffs, and seeding is anything but concrete. Every team, with the exception of the top two, could potentially end up anywhere. The third-seeded Trailblazers and the Nuggets, the first team out, are only four games apart.

Regardless of seeding, however, every team that makes the playoffs has the same goal: becoming NBA champions.

Knowing that the seedings can, and probably will change over the remaining two to four games for each potential playoff contender, it is time to take a look at what can propel them towards or keep them from winning the Larry O’Brien trophy.

No. 9 seed (first team out) – Denver Nuggets

While the Nuggets may be on the outside looking in for now, it is worth mentioning that they would safely be a playoff team if they were in the East.

Alas, they are not, and Denver is fighting for its playoff life with every game.

The Nuggets young core of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Nikola Jokic are electric, and can be good for a very long time. Their positioning in some of the most important basketball stats is eye-opening.

Denver is sixth in points per game, seventh in rebounds per game (thanks to their fantastic length and speed) and fifth in assists per game. This makes them a scary matchup if they do claw their way into the postseason. Being able to score, rebound and share the ball consistently will make it hard for any team to dig its way out of an early hole, if they find themselves in one.

The youth and athleticism will also wear opposing teams out in a seven-game series. The Nuggets love to turn the transition game into a track meet after a steal, but also excel in post-up situations if it is called for, thanks to Jokic’s talents.

For all of these reasons, and the fact that some higher-seeded teams could overlook Denver due to their late season struggles, they could surprise the NBA all the way to the finals. Once the finals roll around, anything can happen, especially if a plucky eight seed manages to punch their ticket.

What will keep them from achieving those dreams, however, is their lackluster defense. With a defense good for 24th in the NBA, that probably will not translate well to the playoffs. As impressive as a sixth-ranked points per game offense is, it does not mean much if Denver cannot stop the best teams in the league from scoring.

The Nuggets certainly cannot go shot-for-shot with the Rockets or the Warriors, and the inability to overpower these teams defensively could spell an early exit.

No. 8 seed – Minnesota Timberwolves

The Timberwolves’ season has been a bit of a roller coaster. At times, they have seemed like not only locks for a playoff spot, but true contenders. At others, they have massively underachieved, falling to legitimately bad teams.

Surprisingly for a team coached by Tom Thibodeau, the offense has been the strength for Minnesota. They are ranked seventh in points per game and leaning heavily on the bona fide stardom of Karl-Anthony Towns.

Towns can score inside, outside and distribute the ball well. Jamal Crawford has seemingly tapped into the fountain of youth to become an important part of the team. Before his injury, Jimmy Butler was averaging the most minutes per game in the NBA, and backing up that playing time with some fantastic numbers.

NBA Western Conference Playoffs

Karl-Anthony Towns will have to keep up his dominant performance if the Wolves hope to win a title. (Photo by Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports)

Their star power is where their title hopes live and die. The Wolves are well-coached, and they have the ability to take over any game at most any moment. If Butler gets his pre-injury step back, then his iso scoring ability will be too much for almost anyone guarding him. Odds are, opposing teams will have to create a mismatch elsewhere on the court to stop him, which the Timberwolves can and will take advantage of. If they can find a way to make that work over multiple series, then there is no reason Minnesota cannot take everyone by surprise and walk home with the title.

Again, this Thibodeau team surprisingly goes heavily against the mold previously casted by his other teams. Normally known for their shutdown defense, this Thibodeau team is flat-out average defensively. Barely outside the bottom 10 in terms of defensive ranking, mediocre defense is not something to get excited about in the playoffs.

In a case of strengths also being weaknesses, pure star power alone cannot get the job done for an average rebounding and defensive team. Add the fact that their bench ranks dead last in court minutes and offensive production, and leaning on Butler and Towns at (hopefully) full strength will be Minnesota’s option.

The Wolves can absolutely get out of the first round if they do not have to see the Rockets, but even that would require immense luck and unbelievable game planning. Sustaining a playoff run on two players and no bench does not make a true finals contender.

No. 7 seed – Oklahoma City Thunder

If it has been said once, it has been said a thousand times: The “OK3” have the ability to take over any game.

However, the Thunder have been underwhelming this season. It is hard to come up with a legitimate argument for why Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony could not figure it out and combine for 70-plus points on any given night. While Melo has lost a step and struggles to move without the ball, he can still fill it up. George’s defense has overshadowed his offense, which is impressive. And Westbrook is Westbrook, no explanation needed.

This team was not built for an 82-game season, it was built for the playoffs. It is important to remember that none of their big three have won a title, and they would all love nothing more than to check off that particular box. With Adams as a reliable rebounder and scorer in the paint, the Thunder even have a bail-out option if George and Anthony’s floor spacing is not working well and Westbrook’s lane to the hoop are clogged.

Their ability to win a title rests solely on their potential. It has been a potential that NBA fans have not seen. But again, this team screams, “NBA Finals contenders” on paper. With good game plans by Scott Brooks, they can absolutely reach that peak if it all finally comes together in the playoffs.

Similar to the Timberwolves’ problem, though, the Thunder’s bench is bad. Oklahoma City will absolutely have to ride the three big names through the playoffs. If we see more of what we have seen over the regular season in the playoffs, then a disappointing end to the season is inevitable.

Their defense is 10th in the league, mostly thanks to George and Westbrook’s ball-stealing abilities. Oklahoma City will be rolling the dice to see if they can rob enough possessions to win games. Many teams they might play throughout the playoffs will be teams that play fast and are not too worried about turnovers because of their scoring ability. Those steals will have to turn into points, no ifs, ands or buts about it.

No. 6 seed – San Antonio Spurs

Two words sum up the reason the Spurs can win the 2018 NBA Finals: Gregg Popovich.

That is an oversimplification, but it is not necessarily completely untrue. Popovich has never had less to work with as the Spurs streak of 50-win seasons will be coming to a close after 18 seasons.

With a 40-year-old Manu Ginobili, a Tony Parker that just cannot do what he used to and no Tim Duncan, the Spurs sit at the sixth seed. This without even mentioning the never-ending Kawhi Leonard saga that has plagued the team.

NBA Western Conference Playoffs

It looks like Greg Popovich and the Spurs will be advancing to the playoffs for 21 straight seasons. (Photo by Jim Cowsert/Associated Press)

The defense is some of the best in the league, and the 3-point percentage is excellent due to disciplined shot selection. Popovich can outcoach almost anyone in the league with just about any roster. That kind of thing is a huge difference maker in the playoffs. The Spurs do not need to win every game, just four out of seven. That is more than doable. With their winning culture and fantastic pedigree, if the Spurs reach the finals, it would be hard to truly see them as underdogs.

The age here is huge though. The team is old, and the young players are inexperienced. Their biggest playoff x-factor would be LaMarcus Aldridge, and teams have been able to shut him down in the past.

The Spurs were swept last year in the conference finals without Leonard. While it seems as if they have found an identity without him this year, it is going to be hard to make a meaningful finals run without the two-way superstar. Teams simply are not scared of the Spurs this year, and intimidation was a big part of their game.

San Antonio will have no choice but to overachieve if they want to win it all.

No. 5 seed – New Orleans Pelicans

Speaking of overachieving, the Pelicans are doing a whole lot with very little.

After DeMarcus Cousins went down with an achilles injury, most NBA fans left the Pelicans for dead. But Anthony Davis has put the team on his unibrow and taken the team to new heights. Averaging 28.1 points and 11.1 rebounds per game, with multiple 50-point games mixed in, the identity of this team is clear. The Pelicans want to give Davis the ball and figure it out from there.

New Orleans has fantastic shooting stats, stemming from their ability to pass up good shots for great ones. Their 3-point percentage ranks in the top half of the league, but they do not take very many, which lends itself well to high percentages. The defense is also good. The balance of this team spells hope for a run to the NBA Finals.

But Davis alone will not be enough to carry them to the finals, let alone win them. All an opposing team has to do is find a way to take him out of the game. This is no easy task, but these will be the best teams in the NBA the Pelicans will be playing against.

The fundamental basketball is sound, but pairing it with the run-and-gun offenses they will be facing will surely overpower New Orleans. If the Pelicans still had Cousins, this would be a completely different story. But as the team stands now, they might have the least chance to win the Finals, regardless of their fifth seed.

No. 4 seed – Utah Jazz

The defensive prowess of this team is their strongest suit. The defense of the Jazz alone can get them out of the first round.

With a scoring threat led by rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell and the improved shooting stroke of Ricky Rubio, Utah is a scary matchup. Coupled with their late season push, this team is coming together at the right time.

NBA Western Conference Playoffs

Rookie of the Year candidate Donovan Mitchell has been a driving force in Utah’s playoff push. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images)

The passing and ball movement is fantastic. They have a great inside-out game, and they will be counting on teams underestimating them once the playoffs roll around. It was not too long ago that the Jazz were on the outside looking in. Now in the fourth spot in the West, they have legitimized themselves and are forcing teams to take them seriously.

The core might just be too young to make a deep run though. Leaning on defense is a tough sell when matching them up against the Rockets or the Warriors. Teams with their jump-shooting abilities thrive on finding the holes and exploiting them constantly.

Regardless of where they sit when the playoffs begin, the first-round matchup featuring the Jazz will be must-watch basketball for any NBA fan. This could be the beginning of something special, even if they do not have the juice to win it all.

No. 3 seed – Portland Trail Blazers

CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard combine for one of the best backcourts in the game right now. The emergence of Jusuf Nurkic as a rock-solid post player has given the team a great option down low. The bench is fantastic and the wing players are some of the best three-and-D men in the NBA

One could accuse the Trail Blazers of playing above their ceiling, but that is a hard argument to sustain given their records against the other best teams in the league. The defense is also playing nice, making Portland a complete team.

Being fourth in rebounds per game also guarantees them enough possessions to get their shooters going, which is essential in their offense. Portland can shoot themselves out of almost any kind of deficit they find themselves in. That kind of pedigree can win a title in any era.

However, playoff basketball is about adjusting when other teams take away their strengths.

The Trail Blazers are dead last in assists per game. It has not hurt them too much in the regular season, but if opposing defenses can take away their iso scoring game, then they are going to try to force the ball into tight spaces, resulting in turnovers.

Selfish basketball can win a team their division, or even their conference, but it does not lend itself well to winning a playoff series or a title. Portland will have no choice but to work to break themselves of that identity and find ways to move off the ball if they want to make it out of the Western Conference.

No. 2 seed – Golden State Warriors

The only thing more well-documented than Golden State’s struggles in the 2017-18 season is their dominance over the past three years.

Banged up, reeling and playing uncharacteristically down to their opponents’ level, the Warriors have let their death grip on the West slide. But this does not spell disaster for Golden State.

Until further notice, they are still the reigning Western Conference champions with a great coaching staff and four All-Stars in their starting five. It looks like the Warriors should be at full strength by the second round of the playoffs.

NBA Western Conference Playoffs

The Warriors might have to play the first round of the playoffs without All-Star Stephen Curry. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

If Stephen Curry comes back at full strength and Kevin Durant continues the current tear he is on, then the Warriors are still the scariest team in the West. Much like the Spurs, Golden State is coasting on reputation until they have to back it up once the playoffs start.

This roster, including a great bench, can own any team at a moment’s notice, no questions asked. They also know their opponents well enough to expose any weaknesses at any position. No one in the NBA community is going to be surprised if they represent the Western Conference for a fourth straight year. The Rockets will probably be their toughest test, so if they do make it to the NBA Finals, expect the dynasty to be official and unequivocal.

However, Houston is the tallest of orders for this team right now. Golden State has made it known that they are vulnerable. Again, the banged up roster could be a problem for the team. Sharing the ball is key to the Warriors’ success, and without shooters like Curry, an extra pass could lead to a turnover. It could also lead to missed shots, which is more of a problem this year than it has been in previous years.

This is because their defense has gone downhill in the worst kind of way. As far as points allowed goes, Golden State is 17th in the league.

Giving opposing teams confidence is the very last thing the Warriors want to do. Golden State thrives on putting their boot on teams’ necks early and applying pressure with a barrage of made shots.

They are not done until they are done, but the playoffs will undoubtedly be more of a test this year than they have been. And the NBA is all the better for it.

No. 1 seed – Houston Rockets

The offensive juggernaut that is the Rockets has earned the top spot through some amazing play. They deserve the home-court advantage and then some.

They are second in points per game, first in 3-pointers made, and their defense ranks in the top 10 in terms of points allowed. The Chris Paul and James Harden experiment has paid off handsomely, and the bench is rallying around the exciting brand of basketball that Houston plays night in and night out.

Even if the defense was truly awful, it would not matter due to the Rockets’ 3-point shooting abilities. Clint Capela also collects enough offensive rebounds to solidify himself as a legitimate playoff threat.

This team can dethrone the Warriors. They have beaten them in the regular season, even when the Warriors were at full strength. If Paul, Harden and Capela are on the floor, the Rockets cannot seem to lose. If they do make the finals over Golden State, go ahead and place your bets, because they can run away with it.

The only real problem with this team is their reliance on jump shooting. For Houston to thrive, shots have to fall. Any NBA fan knows that teams have nights where the ball just does not go in the basket. It is hard to believe that the Rockets would fall victim to enough of those games to remove them from title contention, but it is entirely possible.

If the Rockets can get the Warrior-sized monkey off of their backs and shake their reputation of fizzling out in the playoffs, the NBA Finals may very well be theirs to lose.

 

Featured image by Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

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Jimmy Butler injury

How long can the T-Wolves survive without Jimmy Butler?

In Friday’s game against the Houston Rockets, Jimmy Butler suffered what the Timberwolves are calling a “meniscal injury” to his right knee.

With just over three minutes to go in the third quarter against the team with the league’s best record, Butler was fighting for a rebound in the post. Directly before he fired a pass to forward Taj Gibson, Butler took an awkward step and fell to the ground in pain, clutching his right knee.

Jimmy Butler injury

Rockets trainers and Chris Paul rush to see if Butler is okay, moments after injuring his right knee. (Photo by Michael Wyke/Associated Press)

While team doctors rushed onto the court, Butler was clearly in pain, judging by his contorted facial expression. He could not leave the floor under his own power, and it seemed as if one of Minnesota Timberwolves fans’ biggest nightmares had become a reality.

Due to the clutching of the knee, and the fact that he needed help off of the court, many thought the injury was surely an ACL tear. That would have been sure-fire season-ender for one of the best guards in the NBA.

Instead, the Timberwolves PR account released a statement Saturday at 3:45 ET that the injury was to his meniscus. They gave no timetable for his return.

Being that the injury isn’t necessarily a death sentence for Butler’s season, how effective can Minnesota be without him?

Possible return

Most meniscus injuries take four to six weeks to rehab, if it is not serious. That would put his return date somewhere between March 24 and April 7. If the injury is not severe, then Butler would be ready to play at least one week before the playoffs are slated to begin.

Let’s assume the worst for a moment, saying Butler cannot return until April 7. The Timberwolves will have two games before the playoffs’ start date on April 14. That gives him two “rehab” games to get reacclimated to the team before the important games start. Two games is far from ideal, but it is much better than simply tossing him into NBA playoff basketball without time to get a handle on the pace.

In the best-case scenario, Butler could return to the court during the March 26 game against the Memphis Grizzlies. That would be doubly useful. His first game could come against a subpar team, meaning the Wolves could win easily despite restricted minutes. Plus, he would have eight games to get into playoff shape.

We will know more about his return date soon, but for now all we know is that the Timberwolves certainly plan on having him return for their playoff run.

Expectations without Butler

Minnesota is currently the fourth seed in the Western Conference. Their surprisingly efficient offensive game plan has propelled them forward in a way that wasn’t supposed to come to fruition until next season. The problem is, however, much of that success was thanks to Jimmy Butler.

Jimmy Butler injury

Karl-Anthony Towns will likely become the focal point of the Wolves’ offense. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

Before his injury, he was putting up 22.2 points per game, along with 5.0 assists and 5.4 rebounds. The biggest loss to the team, though, will be his minutes. Jimmy “Buckets” was averaging 37.1 minutes per game, which led all NBA players. Replacing someone who is on the court more than any other individual in the entire league will not be easy, regardless of their offensive output.

Tom Thibodeau likes to ride his starters hard. That has been his identity since he started coaching. But Minnesota’s relatively weak bench made it less of a strategy and more of a necessity. Considering Butler’s consistent offense and his admirable defense, he is a natural choice to eat up minutes for any coach.

But without him, it is likely that Jamal Crawford, Aaron Brooks, Shabazz Muhammad, Andrew Wiggins and Jeff Teague will all have no choice but to help pick up the slack. Thibodeau is capable of creating lineups that will somewhat mask Butler’s absence, but players will have to shift positions often.

Karl-Anthony Towns is still having a terrific season, and the offense can shift its focus to him. Teague can play shooting guard, and Crawford can help stop the bleeding in the backcourt. With the talent on the team, it is probably unwise to bet the Timberwolves fall out of the playoffs completely.

Schedule

That being said, Minnesota has a rough stretch of games during the period they can count on Butler being out of the lineup.

If he returns on March 26, then nine of their 11 games without him will be against teams above .500. This includes a five game stretch in which they play the Celtics, Warriors, Wizards, Spurs and Rockets. These are not only playoff teams, but both favorite and dark horse contenders to reach the NBA Finals.

Jimmy Butler injury

Butler gets helped off the court by his teammates. (Photo by The Houston Chronicle)

There is a very real chance that Minnesota could drop all five of those games. Depending on what the rest of the teams below them in the standings do, that could just be enough to put them on the bubble. Being that the Timberwolves have less games to play than any other team in the league, this could dig them a hole that might be hard to get out of.

The good news is that after that stretch is done, the Wolves will play the Grizzlies twice, along with the Hawks, Mavericks and Lakers. These are all teams well below the .500 mark. Throw in a game with the Jazz and two games agains the Nuggets (which they will more than likely split) and that could give them life.

It’s not out of line to say their seed will go as Butler’s injury goes. If his knee is worse than the Wolves feared, they might be fighting for a spot. If it is routine, then Minnesota will probably end what is currently the longest playoff draught in basketball.

 

Featured image by Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports

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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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2018 NCAA Tournament bracketology February 19

It’s under three weeks until Selection Sunday and college basketball continues to surprise. With teams having resumes that are almost complete, fans can start to get pumped for the madness in March. Here is the latest 2018 NCAA Tournament bracketology. Click to zoom.

First four out: USC, Washington, Louisville, Boise State

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Making the case for every fringe playoff team

The NBA season is halfway over, which means it’s time to start evaluating potential playoff teams.

The top four seeds in each conference are virtual locks, due to overall talent and coaching. The fifth-seventh seeds will do some changing around as teams jockey for their playoff seeding. Although, close followers of the NBA probably wouldn’t be surprised if the Pistons or the Trailblazers fell out of the playoff picture after overachieving slightly in the first half of the season.

As with any sport’s playoff, however, the most interesting storylines are the ones involving the teams on the bubble.

With that in mind, let’s look at each conference’s eighth seed and first two teams on the outside looking in.

Eastern Conference

Indiana Pacers (21-19, No. 8 seed)

The Pacers have been just fine without Paul George. Victor Oladipo has been playing close to his ceiling, although they’re still overpaying for him. The other piece of the trade that sent George away, Domantas Sabonis, has also been playing nicely. He’s two rebounds shy of averaging a double-double, and will probably end up setting career-high averages in every meaningful category.

While their offense has been clicking, their defense is some of the most below average in the Association. Not awful, just very mediocre. Their offense alone can win the Pacers enough games to keep them in the 8th spot. Lack of defensive consistency will have been their downfall if they fail to make the cut.

Philadelphia 76ers (19-19, first team out)

Philadelphia is one of the most exciting stories in the NBA this season. The “process” seems to have finally come to fruition, and we are finally seeing glimpses of what this long and arduous rebuild has wrought.

Even though the 76ers are a .500 team, don’t be fooled. They’re currently first in the league in rebounds per game, second in assists resulting made field goals, and sixth in points. A rested and re-energized team could ride that kind of momentum to a playoff spot after the All Star break. Plus, their first overall draft pick hasn’t even played five games yet.

NBA Playoffs

Embiid scores on Whiteside. (Photo by: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

What will keep them out of the playoffs is their youth and inconsistency in their game to game performances. As the season drags on, the young players might start to slow down, which will only exacerbate their inconsistency issues. Those red flags usually mean a .500 team will stay a .500 team, but playing in a weak conference will definitely help.

New York Knicks (19-21, second team out)

The Knicks are a force to be reckoned with in the paint on both ends of the court. They are ninth in points in the paint and second in points allowed in the paint. Yes, we’re talking about the New York Knicks.

The team is huge, size-wise. Porzingis, O’Quinn, Kanter and Noah are all either over or close to 7-feet. That length pays dividends over a long regular season, but could actually be a problem if they sneak into the playoffs. The East is full of jump shooting teams, which will stretch New York’s strengths too thin to make them truly effective.

Western Conference

New Orleans Pelicans (20-19, No. 8 seed)

New Orleans might very well be a better team than their record indicates. They’re second in points in the paint thanks to Anthony Davis and Demarcus Cousins. They’re also second in the NBA in assists per game thanks to some great guard play both from starters and off the bench. Not to mention they have the second toughest schedule in the NBA (according to 2016-2017 team records).

Team defense leaves a lot to be desired for the Pelicans. Bottom five in opponents points in the paint per game doesn’t make a lot of sense considering the front court they have. They also give up the third most points in the league per game.

NBA Playoffs

Davis and Cousins during a game against the Spurs. (Photo by: Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

It’s an especially strange case on New Orleans’ part. The chemistry and coaching is clearly there, as evidenced by the assist totals. But the defense is nowhere near where it should be, in spite of Cousins and Davis. Remember that Alvin Gentry was brought on to be a defensive mastermind, and the roster has only gotten better since he came to town. Maybe look for a coaching shake-up if the Pelicans miss the playoffs.

Los Angeles Clippers (18-21, first team out)

Doc Rivers’ team is hurting out west. The Clippers have been a staple of the Western Conference playoffs for the past six years, but the days of Lob City have finally come to an end. Chris Paul’s departure marked a culture change for the Clips, and the team has not found its stride just yet.

Los Angeles still has a great 3-point game. Beverley, Williams, Rivers and even Griffin can all pull up from distance. They also have great personnel for man-to-man defense. Those two things are golden in NBA playoff basketball. But, yet again, team defense is going to be the main hurdle between them and their playoff streak.

Utah Jazz (16-24, second team out)

The new look Jazz are in a soft rebuild. After losing their number one scorer in Gordon Hayward, the Jazz were almost certainly take on a new identity. But picking up Ricky Rubio and finding a steal in Donovan Mitchell should have stopped the bleeding more than it has.

Their defense is some of the best in the NBA, all around. In fact, the Jazz are top 10 in almost every meaningful defensive category under Quin Snider. Against the trend, the offense is what will probably keep Utah out of the playoffs this year. Although, again, this is a new look team. And offense almost always comes together more quickly than defense. If they can keep up the defensive dominance, they won’t be out of the playoff picture for long.

 

Featured image by ANTHONY GRUPPUSO-USA TODAY

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