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2021 NBA Main Takeaways of the Day

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If Scott Brooks isn’t forced to leave soon, it seems inevitable that Bradley Beal will force his own way out

Bradley Beal can’t catch a break. The man leading the nation’s capital is averaging a whopping 41 PPG over his last six games played, but DC is 0-6 in those games and now 3-11 overall. Without John Wall alongside him in the backcourt, the Wizards have lacked the firepower to provide Beal with even an adequate supporting cast. It’s hard to point to a lack of scoring as Washington’s issues though, considering their collective 115.7 PPG are the fourth most in the entire NBA. 

It’s really the defensive side of the ball that is holding WAS back and preventing Beal’s constant 30+pt performances from translating into victories. This isn’t new for Wizards fans as the team had the same glaring issue last year. The franchise finally got rid of GM Ernie Grunfeld and as much praise as Tommy Shepard has received since taking the reins, he failed to address one of the biggest weaknesses any team in the league had entering the season: DC’s dismal defense. 

Now it’s gone from bad to worse with Russell Westbrook’s load management, Thomas Bryant’s torn ACL, and Troy Brown’s progress turning in the opposite direction. Some blame definitely deserves to be pointed at the front office for not acquiring more defensive-minded players or using their top-10 pick on a defensive stopper (or at least someone that can contribute 20-30+ MPG right away because of their defensive acumen). 

However, a recurring theme in Washington’s lack of success during Bradley Beal’s ascension to one of the best scorers in the league has been Head Coach Scott Brooks. The basketball leader in the nation’s capital doesn’t instill any defensive accountability which has had a detrimental impact on the amount of points opponents score vs. the Wiz on a nightly basis. When is enough, enough? It’s only a matter of time until their frustrated superstar forces his way out unless they fire Scott Brooks and find a HC that can bring this team back to the playoffs in the near future.

Similar to Steph Curry, Trae Young can one day be as lethal as any player in NBA history

If Trae Young’s game reminds the viewer of anyone, they won’t have to go too far back in history to see the resemblance. The sensational sharpshooting and incredible handles are cut from the same cloth as Steph Curry, who took the NBA by storm during his back-to-back MVP seasons that included the only unanimous Most Valuable Player selection of all-time.

Curry’s defense has always been viewed as a weak spot, but Steph’s unstoppable offensive skillset not only allowed him to succeed at an unprecedented level, but it also opened the floor for his teammates to get more open shots as well. Curry ended up teaming up with another certified assassin, which briefly took away from his opportunities, but now the Warriors playmaker is back to showing the world why he’s so special. When #30 is on his game in the Bay, he’s arguably the single biggest game-changer anyone has ever witnessed with his scorching scoring streaks.

The Hawks have their own version of that offensive threat in the Oklahoma product. The scary thing is ‘Ice Trae’ is reaching heights at 21 and 22 years old that Steph Curry didn’t reach until 25 years old. Showing off such a dynamic skill set at this young an age makes Young’s future as bright as anyone. It’s unlikely Trae Young will ever be a remote threat on the defensive side of the ball considering his lack of size and strength, but like Curry, it won’t matter if he can continue to shoot the lights out and facilitate for others.

Young’s already a better passer than the Chef and has handles and range that are part of an exclusive club among the best in the NBA. Young still has plenty to clean up in his game (turnovers, consistency, etc.) but he’s already an All-Star starter, one of the most lethal offensive threats in the league, and a box office attraction that could one day reach a level even Curry couldn’t. The ceiling is really that high for Ice Trae, who showed it once again on Tuesday.

Michael Porter Jr. is Denver’s x-factor that can get them over the hump

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The Denver Nuggets were only a few games away from reaching the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history last year after mounting a 3-1 series comeback on the Clippers. If it wasn’t for an Anthony Davis buzzer-beater in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, Denver could’ve been up 2-1 in the series with a Finals appearance in sight. However, Denver needed strong showings from Jerami Grant to even make it possible. Before Grant broke out in Detroit this season, he only averaged 12.0 PPG with Denver last year before taking it up a notch in the playoffs, ending the year with a 21.0 PPG average over the final three games. 

What Denver got from Grant in that small sample size is exactly what they’re hoping to receive from Michael Porter Jr. for years to come. The 22-year-old fell to the 14th overall pick in 2018, missed the entire 2018-19 season, and was on a strict minutes restriction in 2019-20 because of injury concerns. He’s fortunately had a clean bill of health since then besides a recent case of COVID. After missing 10 games, MPJ finally showed his sky-high potential again on Monday that was seen in the bubble and the beginning of this season. He balled out with 30 points on 55.6% FG to go with eight rebounds as a huge factor for Denver’s win in Dallas. 

Michael Porter Jr.’s career could go in a lot of different directions going forward which makes him not only such a big x-factor for DEN for the foreseeable future, but also the entire Western Conference, and perhaps the NBA as a whole. There aren’t many teams that have the proven playoff success and continuity Denver does that can also bank on their young superstars continuing to get better as they reach their prime. Throw in Michael Porter Jr.’s potential evolution from a quality spark off the bench to a legitimate 20 points per game scorer, and that could be enough to get the Nuggets over the hump and into their first NBA Finals. 

Gordon Hayward is fully back to being an All-Star as the leader in Charlotte

When the Hornets paid Gordon Hayward $120M to come to Charlotte, it was met with plenty of scrutiny, considering the former 1x All-Star in Utah hadn’t looked like himself since fracturing his ankle during his first game with Boston. He showed flashes of dominance last year, but never quite put it all back together amidst a very talented roster in Beantown. Now that he’s the focal point of Charlotte’s less-talented offense, Hayward is proving to be worth every penny of that monster contract that many deemed the biggest overpay of free agency

It remains to be seen how long the 30-year-old can keep up this All-Star caliber production, but he reminded NBA fans on Sunday once again how effective he can be this season with a 39-point performance in Orlando that included the game-winning layup right before time expired. The Hornets have their future focal point in LaMelo Ball, but until then, this is Gordon Hayward’s team. Charlotte is currently tied for the No.8 seed in the East which could help catapult Hayward into the ASG once again as he keeps leading them to wins in a competitive Eastern Conference and proves to be exactly what Charlotte paid for.

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The Pelicans are the NBA’s biggest early-season disappointment

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The Pelicans were a popular pick to be a playoff team in the crowded Western Conference this season. Led by rising superstars Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson while surrounded by talent with Eric Bledsoe, Steven Adams, Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick and more, the Pelicans seemingly have all the pieces to do it. However, 15 games into the year, the Pelicans may be the biggest early-season disappointment.

The Pelicans lost to the Timberwolves on Saturday 120-110, in a game where the Wolves didn’t have their two best players Karl-Anthony Towns or D’Angelo Russell, owned the worst record in the West (3-11), and coming off 11 losses in 12 games since KAT’s absence. The Pelicans allowed six guys to score double figures while another two had nine, and had no answer for the role-player filled lineups the Timberwolves threw at them. The Pelicans now find themselves at No. 14 in the West at 5-10, sitting just in front of the 4-11 Timberwolves.

The Pelicans are in the bottom half of the league in offensive and defensive points per game, and in the bottom five in 3P% and FT%. It’s still very early in the season, and the Pelicans do have the talent to be successful. However, they’ve lost eight of nine, and this loss against the depleted Timberwolves feels like rock bottom. On the bright side, if this is rock bottom, they can only go up from here, as they possess one of the brightest futures of any team in the league.

Jamal Murray has become one of the game’s best closers over the past year

Jamal Murray came through in the clutch on Saturday for the Nuggets in their 120-112 2OT win over the Suns. Murray sent the game to its first OT with a fadeaway off-balance three-pointer over the 6’11” Deandre Ayton. In the second overtime, Murray hit the dagger with 1:17 to go, a stepback 18-footer to finally put the game away.

This game was not even 24 hours after the Nuggets and Suns battled in OT on Friday, when Murray, again, came through in the clutch. Murray knocked down a pull-up 13-footer with 28 seconds to go in OT to give the Nuggets a three-point lead, which they wouldn’t give away again. Jokic is the leader of the team and can knock down big shots himself, but Murray is Denver’s primary playmaker and has stepped up in situations that matter most.

Since last year’s bubble run, Murray has turned into one of the league’s best scorers in clutch moments. Murray trailed only Jimmy Butler for the most clutch points in last year’s postseason with 39. In last year’s regular season, Murray ranked 22nd in the league with 82 total points in the clutch (a 5-point game with under 5 min left). The 23-year-old put his clutch gene on display all weekend against a likely playoff team in the Suns, and will only continue to get better in his fifth season in the league. 

Deandre Ayton is showing flashes of the MVP-caliber Center he’s capable of being

After Phoenix selected Deandre Ayton No.1 overall in 2018, it has been viewed as nothing but a disappointment considering the sky-rocket rise to the top No. 3 pick Luka Doncic has experienced in his first few seasons as an NBA player. While Luka Magic is special in his own right, Ayton deserves some respect too. He’s not on the same MVP-level as Luka, but he’s recently shown flashes of developing into that.

The Suns Center is still just 22 years old, has all the natural tools, and athleticism that highlights his potential as a future Most Valuable Player candidate. Playing with Chris Paul is the perfect person to help unlock his game mentally as CP3 is one of the best vets in the game and has played alongside tremendous bigs over his illustrious career like Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Clint Capela, Steven Adams, and a prime David West among others. Ayton is also put in great positions around the basket now due to Paul’s passing prowess.

If Ayton can fully develop his outside shot that he showcased at the collegiate level, there’s nothing stopping him from evolving into that Joel Embiid/Karl-Anthony Towns type big man that has an unlimited offensive game, can rebound among the best in the league, and can anchor the defense at the rim. He’s not there yet by any means, but back-to-back games of setting his season-high with 26 and 27 points, respectively, has Suns fans optimistic that they’re witnessing the growth of their No.1 pick right in front of their eyes.

Home-Court advantage is officially proven to be as insignificant as it’s ever been

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As the coronavirus has continued to alter the NBA this season, one difference has seemed to stand out above the rest. With limited fans in attendance in some places and zero permitted in others, home-court advantage has become almost meaningless. Home teams this season are a mediocre 108-104, equaling a winning percentage of just 50.9%. In previous seasons, home teams have enjoyed a winning percentage of around 56-58%.

This year’s Lakers squad is a prime example of the insignificance that now comes with playing on a home-court. The Purple and Gold are off to a franchise-best 8-0 start on the road this season, including their tough seven-point victory in Milwaukee on Thursday. The Bucks were an NBA-best 39-10 at home two seasons ago, and 28-3 at the Fiserv Forum last year prior to the shift to the bubble. While the Lakers have been dominant away from home, they’re just a pedestrian 4-4 at the Staples Center this season.

While home-court advantage has been a huge factor in the NBA, especially in the playoffs, the lack of fans has basically made it a non-factor. While home-teams in the playoffs have seen a win percentage of around 64% in the NBA, the top seeds in each conference may not be as coveted this season. There are pros and cons with these ripple effects, like the fact that teams might not prioritize regular-season wins as much down the stretch, and prefer to rest their marquee players before a playoff push. At the same time, a team decimated by COVID during the season that subsequently falls down the seedings won’t be in as bad of shape. 

Julius Randle’s All-Star caliber season could alter this year’s title race

Julius Randle is enjoying the best season of his seven-year career in 2021. Randle is averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, and assists, while recording double-doubles in 11 of the Knicks’ 16 games, including one triple-double. Randle has become the leader of this young Knicks team and has them sitting at 8-8 with recent impressive wins in Boston on Sunday and Golden State on Thursday.

While Randle has seen changes in many facets of his game, the most influential one has been the evolution of his three-point effectiveness. The 26-year-old is averaging career-highs in 3PM, 3PA, and 3P%, which has allowed the rest of his game to flourish. He’s operating with more space this year and has utilized his quickness as a Power Forward to blow by bigger defenders and make the right play for his team, as showcased on Thursday with another near triple-double. The development of his passing game has also been a huge factor in his success, as he’s spent most of his time in the de facto Point-Forward position on offense.

While Randle has shown flashes early in his career, the Kentucky product is really starting to live up to the No. 7 pick the Lakers used on him in 2014. Randle has put himself into the conversation to be an All-Star for the first time in his career and looks like a potential prominent player to hear his name tossed around as the trade deadline nears. Contenders such as Boston, Miami, Utah, or Portland could make a play for the borderline All-Star, which could catapult one of those PF-needy teams into the NBA favorites conversation.

Collin Sexton is the focal point of a very promising core in Cleveland

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After missing the last five games, Collin Sexton was looking forward to his matchup vs. Brooklyn where he’d face off against Kyrie Irving, who missed his last seven games as well. In his ninth game of the season, Collin Sexton put up 20+ points for the ninth straight time as he continues his ascension in the NBA. The ‘Young Bull’ spoiled Brooklyn’s Big 3 debut with an explosive performance in OT that included 20 straight points and multiple heat-check 3’s, reminiscent of LeBron’s legendary 25 straight points for long-time Cleveland fans. 

Sexton’s latest performance was the best of his young career and further proves his place as a future All-Star in the NBA. It wouldn’t be surprising if he makes his first ASG this year considering he’s already averaging 27 PPG on 53.4%/50%/77.3% FG/3P/FT shooting. He’s the clear offensive focal point of the Cavs, leading them to a 7-7 record so far as part of a young core that has shown plenty of promise.

While they won’t have Kevin Porter Jr. for much longer, they still have Sexton (22), Darius Garland (21), Isaac Okoro (20), Jarrett Allen (22), and Cedi Osman (25), who are all 25 or younger, and already contributing at the highest level of basketball. Considering Cleveland is likely to trade Kevin Love in the near future for more young assets, the Cavaliers could be a major free agent signing or two away from returning to contention like they were in 2014 when LeBron James returned to the Land and elevated them to the top of the East.

Unlike many years, this ROY race has no clear favorite and plenty of contenders

As great as Collin Sexton’s performance was in Cleveland, the highlight of the night came from Cole Anthony, who drained an epic game-winning 3PM at the buzzer. Anthony would’ve never even been in that position a few weeks ago before Markelle Fultz’s torn ACL, but he’s now the primary ball-handler in Orlando. While his shooting efficiency has been AWFUL this season, he’s quickly rising in the Rookie of the Year race, thanks to his new opportunities in Orlando’s offense.

He’ll have PLENTY of competition this year, though. LaMelo Ball should be seen as the leader in the race considering he leads all rookies in numerous categories including points and assists. James Wiseman added another big game on Wednesday to his ROY campaign, while Tyrese Haliburton has been getting some ROY love as well with his 11.1 PPG, 5.0 APG, 50% FG, and 49.2% 3P.

Even though he’s on a losing team, No.1 overall pick Anthony Edwards can’t be counted out, nor should Patrick Williams, who’s one of the few rookies that has started every game. Tyrese Maxey and Immanuel Quickley are a couple of dark horses in a ROY race that should come down to the wire with a variety of viable candidates. Considering Ja Morant (2020), Luka Doncic (2019), and Ben Simmons (2018) all dominated as rookies right from the jump, it’s refreshing to see this much competition for one of the most prestigious awards in the NBA.

Donovan Mitchell is a superstar in the making

Donovan Mitchell has had an electrifying start to his career. The 13th overall pick out of Louisville finished second in Rookie of the Year voting in 2017, and was the runner up to Ben Simmons, who was drafted first overall the year before. As a consolation, the NBA Player’s Association selected Mitchell as their Rookie of the Year. Last year, Mitchell was named an All-Star for the first time in his career, and had the Jazz one game away from a matchup with the Clippers in the second round.

The 24-year-old has averaged over 20 points per game in each of his first three seasons, and is on pace to do that again this year. Mitchell has been the main catalyst for the Jazz’s current six-game win streak, and has his team tied with the Clippers for the second-best record in the league at 10-4. Mitchell is only getting better, and will have his massive five year, $163 million contract kick in next season, worth up to $195 with incentives. For anyone not familiar with Mitchell’s name yet, he’s only getting started and has all the makings of developing into a future superstar in this league. 

Nikola Jokic is the greatest triple-double threat Big Man in NBA history

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Nikola Jokic has already put himself into the conversation among the most skilled big men of all-time. The 25-year-old can score on all three levels, he’s an aggressive rebounder, and is a great rim protector. The most impressive aspect of his game, however, is his passing. Jokic has the passing skills of a point guard, combined with the shooting skills of a sharpshooter, and the length and size of a big man. He’s the heart and soul of this Denver Nuggets team and has continued to improve not only his own game during his sixth NBA season but also the performances of his teammates.

Jokic is averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, and assists this year, and has put on a show as the playmaker of this Nuggets team. Jokic leads the entire league in assists (10.0) this year, which would make him the first Center ever to accomplish that feat. Jokic is also looking to become the first Center in NBA history to average double-digit assists and lead the Nuggets to the playoffs as their 6’11” Point Center. He’s the fifth player ever to rack up a double-double in all 14 games to start a season. Every time he steps on the floor, he’s a triple-double threat. No other Big Man has ever been able to say that.

When Kelly Oubre plays to the level he’s capable of, the Warriors have no limits

While LeBron James and the Lakers are the clear favorites in the NBA this season, no one has given the King more trouble in his illustrious career than Steph Curry’s Warriors. Although there are some new faces on this Warriors squad, Golden State showed they’re capable of taking down a James-led team, and therefore, any team in the league when the guys around Curry play to the level that’s expected of them.

The Warriors traded a first and second round pick to the Thunder to acquire Kelly Oubre Jr. this offseason, who was dealt to OKC by the Suns for Chris Paul just three days prior. The Warriors completed the trade just three days after the news broke that Klay Thompson was out for the year, and were hoping Oubre could fill some of the void the Thompson injury left. Oubre has been in a significant shooting slump to open the year, but provided a huge spark on both ends of the floor on Monday, giving Warriors fans flashes of Klay Thompson’s two-way capabilities.

Oubre scored 23 huge points on offense, while accumulating two steals and two blocks on defense. He also forced some key turnovers late in the game, which allowed the Warriors to stay in the game, and ultimately come back to win. Oubre will never be expected to produce like Klay, but if he can hover around the 20 points per game mark that he did on Monday and fell just short of as a 24-year-old last year, while being a defensive stopper and source of energy for this team, the Warriors have the two-way threat they need alongside Steph to compete for a Championship.

Expect a high-scoring shootout in plenty of Brooklyn Nets games this year

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For fans who love scoring, the Brooklyn Nets are THE team to watch. The Nets, upon Kyrie’s return, will have three of the most lethal scorers in NBA history on the court at the same time. Add to that one of the league’s worst defenses, and Nets games will prove to be shootouts night in and night out, helping people who invest in Overs during Nets game get a little richer. On Monday, the matchup between the Nets and Bucks had a betting Over/Under of 240. While that seemed an outrageously high O/U, the lesson has been learned for all who took the under

The Nets outlasted the Bucks 125-123, as the teams combined for a whopping 248 points with 135 coming in the second half alone. The Bucks, who had given up an average of 99.8 points over their last four games, had no answer for Harden, KD, or the rest of the Nets squad. However, in the words of Bradley Beal, the Nets couldn’t have stopped a parked car. In the deal for Harden, the Nets let go of their two most capable defenders in Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince. They couldn’t have made it more clear: They don’t need to stop the other team… They’re just going to outscore them. 

While history shows that “Defense wins Championships,” no team in NBA history has had an offense as exceptional as this Nets team. Time will tell if this style of play ultimately translates to a title, considering no team has won it all with a defense as disastrous as this one either. However, for now, enjoy the scoring, and always remember to bet the over.

Zion Williamson has already become the NBA’s most unstoppable force in the paint

Zion Williamson is playing in his second season in the NBA. In his first year, he played in just 24 games and was on a minutes restriction, yet still finished third in Rookie of the Year voting thanks to his elite production during his month and a half on the court. This year, Zion is playing without any limits and has showcased his pure dominance in the paint.

The 20-year-old out of Duke is shooting 57% from the field and has almost completely taken out any aspect of his game outside of the interior. Williamson has attempted fewer than 10 shots outside the paint this year and is 0-2 from looks beyond the three-point line. While Zion’s offensive game has become completely one-dimensional, that hasn’t made him any easier to guard.

Zion’s brute force and unprecedented athleticism has allowed him to feast inside and has fueled his efficient game despite no current threat of an outside jumper. Opponents are able to back off of him in the mid-range, yet that hasn’t mattered, as he’s able to either blow by or bully them down in the post. It was known that the former Blue Devil was going to be dominant due to his sheer size and athleticism, but most one-dimensional games don’t translate to success at the NBA level. Zion has plenty of time to develop his jumper, but for now, he’s as unstoppable as anyone in the league, and the most dominant young player since LeBron James.

The Utah Jazz have all the pieces necessary to be a cohesive contender

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The Utah Jazz had one of the shakiest seasons a team could have last year. Rudy Gobert was the first NBA player to test positive for the Coronavirus, leading to the suspension of all major sports. During the time off, there was constant chatter regarding the rift between Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, which many believed to be unfixable. While that was put to rest in the bubble, the Jazz became the first of two teams to blow a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets, ending their season and rehashing chatter that one of Utah’s two All-Stars would depart.

After a quiet offseason, where the only notable addition was long-time Jazz Derrick Favors, many wondered how Utah would fare. After a 4-4 start and a bad loss to the Knicks, Utah has seemingly righted the ship. The Jazz are 5-0 in their last five contests and avenged their bubble collapse on Sunday with a 109-105 victory over the Nuggets in Denver. The Jazz now sit as one of the premier teams in the league, with all the pieces necessary to be a formidable contender.

Utah has their playmaking guard and rising star in Mitchell, a DPOY-caliber rim protector in Gobert, elite shooting with Bojan Bogdanovic, three-and-D specialists in Mike Conley and Royce O’Neal, and a top-tier bench led by Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles, and Derrick Favors. This team may not be as scary as the Lakers or Clippers on paper, but they won’t be an easy out in the playoffs and will have last year’s collapse fueling them in the moments that matter most.

James Harden is already showing a willingness to change to chase a championship

James Harden made his debut for the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday. He played with Kevin Durant for the first time since their run on the Thunder and fit in seamlessly with not only him, but the rest of the Nets offense. Harden played point guard for Brooklyn on Saturday as Kyrie Irving remained out for personal reasons. Point Harden didn’t only look as good as he has all year, but he looked happy for the first time this season.

Happy Harden torched the Magic for 32 points, 12 rebounds, and 14 assists, while his All-World teammate KD exploded for 42 points of his own. While Harden became the first player in NBA history to record a 30-point triple-double in a player’s first game with a new team, the way in which Harden played is what should really have Nets fans excited. Harden was known for being one of the premier isolation scorers in the league. While it led to him being one of the most dominant scorers in NBA history, it never led to a title and was most likely never going to, according to one of the greatest to ever to do it who knows a thing or two about winning rings.

In his first game in Brooklyn, however, the Beard prioritized getting his teammates involved and ensuring the offense didn’t stall when he had the ball. While Harden may have passed a little too much on Saturday, as he was one turnover away from a quadruple-double, the unselfishness he played with was a welcoming sight for his teammates and coaching staff. Although many questioned the way in which Harden went about this situation, he’s in a happier place now, and is finally showing signs of changing his game in order to compete for a championship.

Ja Morant’s speedy return has re-established the Grizzlies as a playoff contender

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Ja Morant went down with an injury on December 28th against the Nets. The timeline for his sprained ankle was three-to-five weeks. He could have missed up to 20 games with that timeline. Instead, he returned on Saturday, less than three weeks from the day he went down. He missed just eight games, in which the Grizzlies were able to pull off a 4-4 record, thanks to a three-game win streak entering their matchup against the 76ers. An 0-8 or 1-7 stretch could have ruined their chances of contending, but they fought hard, and now have their star player back in time to continue their run at the postseason after just falling short last season.

Morant returned on Saturday to lead his team to a gritty 106-104 win against a Philadelphia team playing without their All-Star C Joel Embiid. Morant recorded 17 points and six assists in 30 minutes, and helped his team fend off a late comeback attempt by the scrappy Sixers. Morant’s return by no means makes Memphis a lock for the playoffs, but an elongated absence would have meant the end of the Grizzlies’ chances this season. With Morant back, MEM are back to being a competitive team on a nightly basis, and have one of the most electrifying players in the league leading the way.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the face of OKC and a future perennial All-Star

Considering he’s stuck playing in a small market for a losing team, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander may be the most underrated basketball player in the league. After a breakout rookie year in LA, the Clippers sent him and every pick they owned to the Thunder as part of the Paul George trade. Shai, along with Chris Paul, were the main reasons the Thunder surprised the league and made the playoffs last season. When OKC went into full rebuild mode this offseason and traded just about everybody on their roster for picks, there was one untouchable: SGA.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has taken yet another leap in his game this season, and is again the main reason that the Thunder are surprisingly winning games. The 22-year-old out of Kentucky is averaging over 21 points and six assists per game, and has the Thunder as one of the most difficult teams to take down night in and night out.

On Friday, SGA had a career-high 33 points while tying his personal assists record (10) in a come-from-behind OT win against the Bulls. Down by as many as 22, Shai and the rest of the gritty Thunder never gave up, and now sit at 6-6 with some impressive wins for a team that had minimal expectations. The Thunder are still rebuilding, as they continue to transition from the KD-Westbrook era. With SGA running the show and the overhaul of upcoming draft picks over the next decade though, it could be sooner rather than later that there’s a new All-Star duo in OKC leading them through the playoffs.

No lead is safe against the reigning NBA champions

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The Lakers struggled early on against the Pelicans on Friday night. The Pels were shooting a scorching 66% from the field midway through the second quarter and were able to build a 15-point lead with six and a half minutes left before halftime. Six minutes later as they went into the break, the Lakers were down just one. The Lakers would go on to win easily by a score of 112-95 behind a dominant second-half from LeBron James and LA’s deep bench.

The cohesiveness that this Lakers team plays with fuels their confidence despite large deficits. The Lakers had one of the busiest off-seasons ever for a reigning champion, adding five new guys to replace the eight they lost. With the abbreviated offseason and training camp, this new team was expected to take some time to gel. A slower start wouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone. Especially during the first half of LA’s Opening Night game against the Clippers which saw the reigning champs face a large hole. However, they then went on a run to tie the game and proved anyone wrong that completely counted them out.

While they didn’t walk away with the win in that game, they did end up dominating against the Pelicans despite trailing big early on. Just like they’ve done time and time again this year as their opponent builds large leads, only to see the reigning champs get back on track and eviscerate the opposition. The Lakers are now 11-3, recently setting a franchise record for starting 7-0 on the road, and they have the best defensive rating in the league. LeBron is playing like an MVP candidate yet again, the Lakers are proving no lead is safe against them, and the 17-time champs are playing like they want to hang banner number 18 at the end of this season.

Malcolm Brogdon is poised to earn his first All-Star appearance this season

Malcolm Brogdon may be the most underrated player in the NBA these days. In his first year in the league, Brogdon became the first second-round pick since 1965 to win the Rookie of the Year award. Two years ago, he became just the eighth player in NBA history to achieve a 50-40-90 season. The other guys on that list? Larry Bird, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Reggie Miller, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, and Mark Price. That’s some pretty good company.

Brogdon has gradually improved his game over the course of his career, and in his fifth year, he’s taken it to another level. Brogdon is averaging 22.8 points, 7.4 assists, and 4.2 rebounds a game, and is flirting with another 50-40-90 season, shooting 48.1% from the field, 45.7% from deep, and 88.2% from the line. More importantly, the 28-year-old is the starting point guard on one of the best teams in the East, who just shipped out Oladipo, doubling down on their belief in Brogdon as their guard of the future.

On Thursday, Brogdon finished with 25 points, five rebounds, seven assists, and three steals, leading the Pacers to their first win in Portland since 2007. Brogdon and Sabonis are slowly turning into one of the game’s best guard-big duos, and have Indiana sitting at 8-4, looking like one of the most complete teams in the entire league. Two off-seasons ago, Indiana offered Brogdon a four-year, $85 million offer sheet that many believed was an overpay, and the Milwaukee Bucks chose not to match. As Brogdon plays through the second year of that deal, the Pacers’ decision clearly looks like the right one.

The problem that Harden was referring to in Houston may have been himself

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After a tumultuous past couple of months in Houston, the Rockets finally shaved their beard, shipping out James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets. The final straw was Harden’s postgame interview following back-to-back blowout losses to the Lakers, where he said the Rockets weren’t “good enough” to compete with the best teams in the league. Teammates John Wall and Demarcus Cousins didn’t hold back in their own interviews, and less than 24 hours later, Harden was gone. The Rockets trade looked to the future, as they gained four first-round picks and another four first-round swaps. 

They did, however, secure Victor Oladipo in the trade, a 28-year old on an expiring deal who will be playing for a big contract in the offseason. On Thursday, the Rockets didn’t have Oladipo suited up yet, while Wall and Eric Gordon were out with injuries. Down by nine with 4:39 to go, this cohesive Rockets team played inspired basketball. They went into San Antonio, took down the mostly fully-loaded Spurs, and secured their first road win of the season. However, this new-found level of chemistry doesn’t mean this Rockets team is now going to win the Championship in July. 

Their recent draft history hasn’t been great, but they’ll have a lot of cracks at hitting a winner over the next eight years, especially the back half of the deal when KD, Harden, and Kyrie are in the twilight years of their career. It’s not easy to trade a superstar and come away as a winner, but the Rockets put themselves in a position to be very successful in the future and proved to their current roster that the days of one player getting special treatment because of their talent are over. There’s a new era in Houston, and the current guys on the roster look very happy to be a part of it, which is a lot different than it was just 48 hours ago.

1/13/21

The Brooklyn Nets have officially taken over New York from the Knicks

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The Nets dominated the Knicks on Wednesday in the battle of New York (until garbage time), but that was far from the biggest story of the day in the Big Apple. Hours before tip-off, James Harden was shipped to the Brooklyn Nets in a four-team deal that shifted the entire landscape of the NBA. The Nets mortgaged their future and depth for a run at a title, and have assembled the most unguardable big three in NBA history. Assuming Kyrie returns from his personal hiatus, the Nets can put out a lineup of Irving, Harden, Kevin Durant, Joe Harris, and DeAndre Jordan. Imagine being an opposing coach trying to slow that team down. 

Brooklyn’s lineup now features three of the greatest isolation scorers in NBA history, all still seemingly in their prime. Opposing teams can’t double-team one of them to leave the others open, yet are being forced to guard three of the league’s most unstoppable players one-on-one. Good luck. 

One major storyline to watch in this trade is Brooklyn’s depth. The Nets shipped out rising stars Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen, while also losing Taurean Prince and Rodions Kurucs. This trade will highlight Spencer Dinwiddie’s torn ACL, as the second-unit is expected to now feature Landry Shamet, Tyler Johnson, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Jeff Green, Bruce Brown, and the lone big man Nic Claxton (when he returns from injury). 

Brooklyn does have three open roster spots available and can use their $5.7 million tax ML, a likely $5.7 million Disabled Player Exception from Dinwiddie’s injury, along with one minimum exception to fill them. Almost any free agent is expected to chomp at the bit for a chance to join this team and compete for a championship alongside the most talented Big 3 in NBA history. The Nets should also be huge players in the buyout market post-trade deadline which has produced quality bench players like Markieff Morris, Reggie Jackson, and Jeff Green last year. 

Paul George is the best player on the Clippers this year, not Kawhi Leonard

Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are shoe-ins to be All-Stars this year as long as they stay healthy. They make up one of the best duos in the league, and a couple of the NBA’s most effective two-way players. Kawhi, however, was in a different tier than PG entering the year, as not only the best on the Clippers but one of the four NBA Finals MVPs in the entire league (Kawhi x2, LeBron x4, Durant x2, and Iguodala). However, early on in the year, Paul George is proving to be the Clippers’ most valuable player, worth every bit of that lucrative extension he received this offseason.

Paul George is in full-blown comeback mode this season following his struggles in the bubble. George is having a career-year for the Clippers, particularly as a shooter, as he’s looking to become just the ninth player to join the 50-40-90 club in NBA history, shooting 49.7% from the field, an inconceivable 51.6% from three, and 90.9% from the charity stripe. The 30-year-old is also averaging a strong 25.2 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per contest, and has played in all but one of the Clippers’ games.

PG13 admitted being in the bubble took a toll on him mentally, and some of his peers around the league continue to come at George for his lack of mental toughness. Regardless, none of that matters to him right now, as PG is enjoying the most efficient shooting season of his career, and has looked nothing short of the number one option and best player on this stacked Clippers roster that’s ready to bounce back following a disappointing exit in last year’s playoffs.

1/12/21

 LeBron is playing with a new championship swagger and confidence, but AD surprisingly isn’t

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The highlight of the night saw LeBron James turn around at his teammates before draining a 3-pointer in a blowout victory in H-Town. The 4x Champ LeBron James is talking the talk, celebrating his big moments, and turning around before his threes are even dropping, which turned out to be in response to an in-game “bet” with Dennis Schroder. While some expected LBJ to have a slow start after the short offseason as a 36-year-old, King James still sits on his throne as the best player in the game, and is playing with as much swagger, confidence, and energy as ever.

Meanwhile, Anthony Davis is finally playing in the League as an NBA Champion. After spending the first seven years of his career trying to crawl to the top, he’s now entering his 9th season on the reigning best team in the league, and favorite to repeat this year. He’s also playing his first year under the lucrative 5y/$190 million contract the Lakers awarded him in the offseason, giving him the seventh largest contract in NBA history. If that doesn’t give a guy confidence, then nothing will. Yet early on in the year, it’s been a quieter AD than most expected and a decrease in production across the board.

Davis is by no means having a bad year in LA. AD is playing like an All-Star, and has shown flashes of his dominance when the Lakers have needed him to. However, he isn’t looking like the unstoppable, aggressive, swagger-filled player the Lakers saw in the bubble. Davis has not been as aggressive on the boards this year, averaging just 8.7 rebounds per game, the fewest since his rookie season. He’s getting to the line HALF as much as he has over the last 4-5 years, and at times has looked like a spot up shooter on the Lakers team, as opposed to a threat on all three levels.

It should be understood that first and foremost, the Lakers are clearly prioritizing Davis’ health this year, as a healthy AD makes LA a runaway title-favorite. Second, AD is spending more time than ever at the PF position, a whopping 88% of the time, which would be 24% more than any other season. As more of a stretch-4 now, Davis isn’t disappointing, shooting as efficiently as ever from the field, and proficiently as ever from three. A subdued AD isn’t a problem for the Lakers, especially as he should alter his energy levels come playoff time, but it’s interesting that LBJ has gained the confidence and swagger many were expecting AD to play with this year.

Joel Embiid has officially entered the MVP conversation

Joel Embiid has racked up many accolades early in his NBA career. The 26-year-old is a 3x All-Star, 2x All-NBA 2nd-Teamer, 2x All-NBA Defensive 2nd-Teamer, and was on the All-Rookie 1st Team in 2017. After missing his first two seasons with a foot injury, the 7-footer has lived up to everything and more as the key ingredient of “The Process,” yet in his fifth NBA season, he’s taken yet another jump.

Joel Embiid has officially entered his name as a candidate for the MVP Award, averaging over 26 points and 12 rebounds per game as he leads the team with the most wins in the East. He’s recording career-highs in field goal, three-point, and free-throw percentages, and has been a force on both ends of the floor for the 8-4 Covid-riddled Sixers. Despite Simmons fouling out in regulation on Tuesday, and the Sixers only having eight available guys to begin with, Embiid put the team on his back, sending the game to OT with a 21-foot pull-up jumper with 3.3 seconds left, and scoring 11 of the team’s 17 points in the extra period to beat the Heat.

On Tuesday, Embiid became the first player since 1983-84 with at least 45 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, and five steals in a game. Embiid is by far the best player on the current top team in the Eastern Conference, and the 26-year-old is solidifying himself as one of the best players in the entire league. Embiid’s best finish in the MVP race has been 7th. Considering his massive impact on both ends of the floor so far, that’s destined to change this year.

1/11/21

CJ McCollum’s All-Star play makes this the most talented Blazers team of the Dame-CJ era

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CJ McCollum is having a career-year for the Blazers this season. McCollum is averaging career-highs in points (28.1), assists (5.0), and three-point percentage (44.5%), while being an elite scorer alongside All-Star Damian Lillard. McCollum’s ability to knock down shots has been crucial to the Blazers’ success, as Lillard has seen double and triple teams on numerous occasions.

On Monday, McCollum was the hero for Portland, as he knocked down a pull-up 17-footer with 10 seconds left to give the Blazers the lead, and ultimately the win. On a team where fourth quarters are known as “Dame Time,” McCollum had the ball in his hands when the game mattered most — and he delivered. If McCollum is able to sustain these numbers, he could finally be looking at his first career All-Star appearance during his eighth NBA season. But more importantly for the Blazers, if this play is sustainable from CJ, they have a real shot at beating ANYONE in the West, including the champs.

De’Aaron Fox is the most underrated ATHLETE in the league

De’Aaron Fox isn’t just quick… He has world-class quickness. His ability to grab a rebound and get down the court is similar to that of John Wall and Russell Westbrook, two of the fastest players to ever step inside an NBA arena. The way Fox can drive to the hoop for explosive slams is unmatched, especially for someone of his size. Speed and athleticism is not a requirement to be a great Point Guard in the NBA, but it sure does help, and the Kentucky product is proving that in his fourth season.

In a close game against the Pacers, De’Aaron Fox received a pass at the top of the key and didn’t hesitate to explode down the lane for a vicious dunk that turned out to be the dagger in the Kings’ win over Indy. Fox is not only explosive for a point guard, but he’s as athletic as anyone in the league. Though his game compares to the likes of Wall and Westbrook, Fox doesn’t earn the same recognition when it comes to being the league’s greatest athletes, even though Fox has dunk-contest level athleticism and the speed to outrun anyone in the open court. With a few more highlight dunks like the one he had on Monday, he may finally get that respect.

1/10/21

Expect Zach LaVine to be the next superstar to request a trade

Zach LaVine has taken the superstar leap this year. He’s averaging career-highs in points (27.7), assists (4.6), rebounds (5.1), field goal percentage (49.1%), and free throw percentage (88.7%), cementing himself as a top player and premier scorer in this league. He had recent scoring performances of 39, 38, 33, and 32 going into Sunday’s tilt with the Clippers, and drained clutch shots down the stretch in wins against the Wizards and Trail Blazers.

On Sunday, it was more of the same for LaVine, who scored 45 points, including 10 3PM, and added seven rebounds along with seven assists. LaVine did everything he could for the Bulls, yet they came up just short in a tough three-point loss to the Clippers, two days after their two-point loss to the Lakers, also at the Staples Center.

LaVine is playing like a superstar, and it may be time he wants to be treated like one. If the Bulls continue to lose, especially in the fashion they’ve lost their last couple games, LaVine may become even more frustrated with the losing franchise. It would not be surprising to see LaVine request to be traded to a contender, and to have a shot at playing playoff basketball for the first time in his seven-year career.

Draymond Green’s health is the real catalyst for the Warriors team status

 
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Draymond Green missed the first four games of the Warriors’ season due to a foot injury he suffered during training camp. The Warriors went 2-2 in those games, starting out with two blowout losses to the Nets and Bucks, and needed a last-second three to take down the Bulls. In Green’s first game back, he played just 17 minutes in a loss. Since then, Green has played at least 20 minutes in every game. The Warriors are 4-1 in those games.

Green is the defensive anchor for the Warriors on one side of the ball, and a gifted passer and playmaker on the other. On Sunday in Toronto, Green had a near triple-double, accumulating season-highs in points (10), rebounds (9), and assists (10). In a game where Steph Curry went just 2-16 from the field, Green was able to make the right plays for this team, help everyone around him play better, and they collectively held off the Raptors in a hard-fought victory. As long as Green stays healthy, the Warriors are a threat in the West and will continue outperforming their overall talent.

1/9/21

Tyrese Maxey showed he has the potential to be a lethal NBA scorer sooner than later with an elite floater

The Philadelphia 76ers were drastically derailed by the league’s health and safety protocols on Saturday. Due to Seth Curry’s positive test and contact tracing, the 76ers only had seven guys eligible to play, including four rookies and the only available starter, Danny Green. This thrusted 20-year-old rookie Tyrese Maxey into the starting lineup, the 21st overall pick out of Kentucky. Maxey flashed tons of potential at Kentucky, particularly with his ability to score the ball. That’s exactly what he did on Saturday against NBA competition.

Maxey led the way for Philly with a career-high 39 points on 18/33 shooting in 41 minutes. Maxey was able to get just about anything he wanted on offense, showing off his keen abilities to get to the hoop. The most impressive part of Maxey’s game, however, was his floater, which at times seemed to be unguardable as he marched down the lane. In a game that could have been difficult for the Sixers to find something positive, Tyrese Maxey threw his name into the conversation as the steal of the draft, and should expect to see more than the 15 minutes a night he was averaging moving forward.

New-look Suns are already showing the chemistry & crunch time success that can get them over the hump

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The Phoenix Suns were the Cinderella story of the bubble last season, as they departed with an 8-0 record. Devin Booker was playing at an all-NBA level, and although the team just missed out on the playoffs, they were looking to be a potential sleeper going into this season. They solidified that theory in the offseason, trading for Chris Paul from the Thunder and signing Jae Crowder away from the Heat. They’re just 10 games into their young season, but the Suns are looking like a legitimate threat to be a top team in the West.

Phoenix is 7-3 following a gritty win in Indiana against the now 6-3 Pacers. Booker is picking up where he left off in Orlando, averaging 22 points on 48% shooting, while Paul is averaging over 13 points and eight assists per contest. The real surprise, however, has been the play of Mikal Bridges, who scored a career-high 34 on Saturday, and has developed into the effective 2-way starter the Suns traded for on draft night just three offseasons ago.

Phoenix has seven guys averaging double figures this season, and has reached the century-mark in each of its first ten contests. There were many questions on whether the Suns dominance in the bubble would translate to a normal regular season, especially with major reinforcements added in between. Early on, Monty Williams already has his team playing like a cohesive unit as they sit at the top of the Western Conference, tied with the reigning champs for the No.1 seed.

1/8/21

Jerami Grant wasn’t a “one-bubble wonder,” and is turning his lucrative contract into a bargain

The Pistons had an interesting offseason. They started with three first round picks, but then it got weird. Detroit signed big men Mason Plumlee and Jahlil Okafor for a combined $10M/year, letting their 25-year-old budding star Christian Wood walk for just under $14 million a season. The Pistons also threw $60 million at Jerami Grant for the next three seasons, who came alive during the Nuggets’ playoff run in the bubble but hadn’t proved to be worth $20M/year besides that limited sample size. Grant is still just 26, but many questioned that kind of money for a guy averaging under 10 points and four rebounds in his career.

Fortunately for the Pistons, they seemed to have gotten it right as Jerami Grant is having a career year in every way possible. He’s averaging career-highs in PTS (24.8), REB (6.4), and FT% (86.5%), while converting 46.8% FG and 36.3% 3PA. Grant has also scored a career-high 31 points in each of the Pistons’ last two games, a loss to Milwaukee on Wednesday and an upset victory in OT against the Suns on Friday. Grant put in eight of the team’s 17 points in the OT period, including the final six.

The Pistons will likely not see much time beyond the bottom of the standings this season. Selling at the deadline seems inevitable, as players like Derrick Rose and Blake Griffin could become valuable pieces to a contender and could net promising young players and/or draft picks for a team that isn’t built to contend anytime soon. The Pistons have Grant locked up for three years, they’ve resurrected the career of 23-year-old Josh Jackson who’s locked up for two, and they could accumulate some serious draft assets at the deadline to add to their already young roster that Grant has taken over as the No.1 option for.

This young Hornets team is looking like the most entertaining non-contender

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The Hornets may be one of the most exciting teams in the league this year despite their minuscule chances of making the playoffs. Their offseason brought in the 19-year-old G LaMelo Ball with the No. 3 overall pick, and 2017 All-Star F Gordon Hayward via free agency. The backend of Hayward’s four-year, $128 million deal may turn into a headache for the Hornets, but at 30 years old, he should have a few more productive seasons left in the tank which is right in line with the Hornets progression.

Hayward, Ball, and the Hornets extremely young roster including Devonte’ Graham (25), Miles Bridges (22), Terry Rozier (26), and PJ Washington (22) are already playing well this year, and should only improve over the next few years. Hayward is averaging over 22 points a game, Rozier has performances of 42 and 35 points this year, while LaMelo was one assist shy on Friday from becoming the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double during the first matchup against his big brother in the NBA.

The Hornets aren’t winning the title this year. They do, however, have the pieces to contend for playoff basketball sometime soon, and in the meantime are an exciting team to watch with the special plays LaMelo, Rozier, and Graham make in the backcourt along with the above-the-rim tenacity of Miles Bridges. Even though they won’t win consistently this year, they have a real shot to beat their opponent on any given night, which could make them a tough out if they find a way to reach the new postseason play-in tournament.  

1/7/21

After a slow start, Luka Doncic is back as the MVP favorite, and the Mavs playoff chances rely on it

Luka Doncic is playing in his third NBA season at 21 years old. He burst onto the scene and grabbed the Rookie of the Year award in his first season, and took a huge leap last season, finishing third for the Most Improved Player award and fourth in MVP voting. Luka entered this season as the favorite to win the MVP, and finally proved why on Thursday, in a 124-117 OT victory over the Nuggets.

Luka did it all on national TV in an OT thriller, scoring 38 points, racking up 13 assists, and bringing down nine boards. He assisted the go-ahead three-pointer in regulation and scored nine of the Mavs’ 15 points in the extra period, leading them to victory in a game that was as important as any early regular season game could be. The Mavericks would’ve dropped to 3-5 with a loss, but they instead sit at 4-4, they grabbed a huge win over a Western Conference contender, and they got some momentum going into their next couple games where they hope to get All-Star Kristaps Porzingis back from injury.

The Nets are the deepest team in the East and can endure short-term absences from their stars 

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The Nets did not have Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant on Thursday, in a matchup with the NBA’s best 76ers (7-1 entering the day). Durant continues to quarantine due to health and safety protocols, while Irving sat out Thursday’s game for personal reasons. The odds were stacked against first-year Head Coach Steve Nash and his short-handed team, yet they took it to the Sixers, in a dominant 13-point victory that didn’t look as close as the final score may show.

Caris LeVert, who showed out in the bubble last year as a budding star for this team, led the starters with 22 points, 10 assists, and seven rebounds, while Joe Harris, who Nash elected to bring off the bench their last two games (both wins), scored 28 points, including six three-pointers as the primary scorer of the second unit. Also in double figures was Jeff Green, Taurean Prince, and Jarrett Allen, who Nash inserted into the starting lineup their last two games, both of which he put up a double-double.

Brooklyn has demonstrated through their back-to-back wins without KD — and now without Kyrie as well — that they may be the deepest team in the East. This depth will play a key role in maintaining the health of their stars, while keeping the team afloat during this unprecedented year. However, chemistry is an important aspect of the game, and the Nets must find time for KD, Kyrie, and the rest of their squad to gel. If the Nets want a real shot at a championship this season, they need KD and Kyrie to suit up for as many games as they can, especially during the second-half of the year or they could end up like the Clippers did last season.

1/6/21

Markelle Fultz was showing solid progress but now Orlando’s playoff chances rely on a rookie

Markelle Fultz and the Orlando Magic have been two of the league’s early season surprises. Coming into Wednesday night, Fultz was averaging more points, assists, and minutes than ever in his career, and was finally starting to look like the No. 1 overall pick the 76ers drafted just four years ago. Fultz was the starting point guard for the 5-2 (now 6-2) Magic, who currently sit at the No. 2 seed in the East, but a non-contact torn ACL shut down his breakout season, and now becomes a difficult obstacle in the Magic’s playoff chase.

Cole Anthony, the 15th overall pick in this year’s draft, is expected to take over a larger role, potentially in the starting lineup to replace Fultz. Anthony has shown flashes early in his career, but has gone through the normal growing pains of adjusting to the league. He won’t have much time to get settled into his new role, as the Magic have a difficult stretch of games — matchups with the Mavericks, Bucks, Celtics (twice), and Nets — eight of the next nine being outside of Orlando. This will likely prove whether the Magic can survive without Markelle or if his injury is too much to overcome for a mediocre team in the East

Miami is the same extremely resilient team they were in the bubble

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The Miami Heat were the Cinderella story in the bubble last year. They swept the Pacers, ousted the Bucks in five games, and then took down the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals in six hard-fought battles. They were taken down by the Lakers in six games in the Finals, but not due to a lack of fight. Erik Spolestra’s team has sustained that resilience in the new season. However, many NBA experts and league evaluators believed they benefitted from the unique circumstances 2020 presented, and wouldn’t be as successful in 2021.

The Heat might have lost to the Celtics in the Game of the Day on Wednesday, an ECF rematch in Miami, but they showed that same extreme resilience that helped them thrive in the bubble. The Heat were down by as much as 17 in the first half, but fought their way back to take a lead in the third quarter, and enter the fourth in an 80-80 stalemate. The Celtics were able to take a 10-point lead with 1:17 to go in the fourth, which would presumably put away most teams. Not this Miami team.

The Heat battled back in the final minute, tying the game with 13 seconds left. A Payton Pritchard put-back at the buzzer ultimately put MIA away, but they demonstrated that toughness that carried them into the Finals last year. The Heat sent a message to the rest of the Eastern Conference on Wednesday: Last year was not a fluke. Don’t count this team out.

1/5/21

LeBron James continues to be one of the greatest closers ever, even in Year 18

Lebron James is playing in his 18th season in the NBA. He just turned 36 years old before the turn of the new year. LeBron is coming off a season in which he led the league in assists for the first time in his career, and became the first player in NBA history to win a Finals MVP award with three teams. With just a 72-day offseason, this was looking like the year LeBron could finally slow down. Not so fast.

LeBron took over down the stretch of the Lakers 94-92 win over the Grizzlies, hitting multiple tough fadeaway jumpers in the closing minutes of the game and executing an unstoppable pick-and-roll alongside Anthony Davis. Even though Kyrie’s comments were misplaced and the narrative earlier in the ‘Chosen One’s career said otherwise, James proved once again why he’s one of the most effective closers in the game. The King would go on to finish with 26 points, 11 rebounds, and six assists, his third double-double of the year (he also has one triple-double).

Most 36-year-olds in the league are taking a backseat on their squads (ex. Andre Iguodala, Carmelo Anthony, JJ Redick, Paul Millsap, or Lakers teammate Marc Gasol). Their playing time is diminishing, and they may even be transitioning into a player-coach type of role. LeBron is different. King James has played in all eight games this year for the Lakers, despite the turned ankle he’s been nursing since opening night. Bron will be looking to lead his Lakers to the top seed in the West yet again, and to hoist his 5th championship and MVP trophies, as a 36-year-old, with still plenty left in the tank, especially at the end of the game.

The NBA’s 3-point revolution is only going to continue rising

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Steph Curry and the splash brother Warriors changed the game of basketball over the last decade. Their offensive strategy was simple: three points are worth more than two, so why not focus on taking more three-point shots. This led to Daryl Morey’s Rockets to take this one step further, basically eliminating the two-point jumper from their game. That team set the NBA record when they attempted 70 three-pointers in a game last season.

This year, this emphasis on the three-pointer is only increasing. On Tuesday, Gregg Popovich’s Spurs tied a franchise-record with 20 made threes in their victory over the Clippers, while Terry Stotts’ Trail Blazers set their own franchise record with 51 three-pointers attempted. Patty Mills made eight huge threes for the Spurs, while CJ McCollum attempted 14 for the Blazers. NBA scores are increasing, and more threes are being attempted than ever before. Expect this trend to only continue in the future as analytics become a bigger part of the game.

1/4/21

Pascal Siakam is not playing like an All-Star, and the Raptors will miss the playoffs if he’s not

Pascal Siakam had a meteoric rise to greatness in the NBA. He came out of seemingly nowhere in 2019, and was awarded the Most Improved Player as a key piece to the Raptors Championship team. Last season, following Kawhi’s departure, Siakam took over the reins of the team, and did not disappoint, averaging just under 23 points and 7.3 rebounds on 50% shooting from the field. He led the Raptors to the two seed in the East, and was voted into his first all-star game as a starter, cementing himself as a top player in this league.

The Raptors were expecting him to continue to trend upward this year after signing him to a 4y/$130M extension a year ago. That hasn’t been the case, and the Raptors are struggling because of it. Siakam is averaging just 17.6 points on 41% shooting and has led the Raptors to an abysmal 1-5 record to open the year. He sat out the team’s December 31st contest against the Knicks, which has been the Raptors’ only victory this season. If the Most Improved Player can’t show some signs of improvement soon, the Raptors may be in for an extremely disappointing 2021 campaign in Tampa Bay.

The Indiana Pacers’ continuity is fueling their early season success

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The Indiana Pacers were down six with 20 seconds left on Monday against the Pelicans. Victor Oladipo hit a three, forced a steal, and found Myles Turner who hit a huge three to tie it. The Pacers sent the game to overtime and would go on to win 118-116. The Pacers now sit at 5-2 and are currently tied for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Pacers finished fourth in the East last year, but were swept by the Heat in the first round. They made no notable moves in the offseason, which many saw as an acceptance of losing. 

The Pacers brought back 98% of the team’s total minutes during the 2019-20 season, a staggering 9% more than the second-highest team, the Chicago Bulls. The GM of the Pacers, Chad Buchanan, saw something in the team he has in place and decided to run it back, hoping a new Head Coach would make enough of a difference. So far, that has turned out to be the right decision as their continuity has thrived early in the season while other teams are still figuring it out. The Pacers will be tested with eight straight Western Conference opponents over the next 16 days, including a tough five-game road trip next week.

1/3/21

Warriors are a legitimate threat in the West if they have this MVP-caliber Steph Curry

The Warriors have had a tumultuous start to their 2021 campaign. The offseason began with the news of star Klay Thompson being ruled out for the year with a torn Achilles in November. The team didn’t panic in the draft and stuck with James Wiseman as opposed to grabbing another guard to fill Thompson’s role. The team was hoping Andrew Wiggins and new acquisition Kelly Oubre Jr. would be able to carry the loss of Thompson. They haven’t…but that may not matter much.

Steph Curry dropped a career-high 62 points on Sunday in an upset over the Portland Trail Blazers. Curry looked better than he ever has in his 12-year career, which is quite an accomplishment for a 32-year-old with two MVPs, including the only unanimous one in league history. Steph put the team on his back Sunday night, sinking shots that appeared impossible to fall in. However, with the way the rest of the team is playing, Steph may have to continue to play at an MVP level if he wants any shot of returning to the postseason again this year.

The Warriors might have to expect inconsistency from Wiggins and Oubre all season at this rate, while Draymond Green is never a guarantee to help much offensively. The load will always fall on Curry to deliver this season. If the Warriors ultimately make the postseason this year, it will be due in no small part to the play of Curry, who could even have a shot at a third MVP award if this game marks the start of elite play from here on out.

Jaylen Brown’s emergence gives the Celtics an All-Star dynamic duo

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Jaylen Brown was the fourth option on the Celtics last season. Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, and Gordon Hayward all took valuable touches away from Brown, which may have prevented him from truly breaking out. However, Hayward is now on the Hornets and Walker is on the shelf with an injury, so Brown is now emerging as the number two option for the Celtics right now, and quite frankly, is playing like the number one.

Jaylen Brown scored 31 points on 13/16 shooting on Sunday, including a clutch go-ahead three-pointer to put the Celtics up two with 34 seconds left. Brown is now averaging 28 points on an inconceivable 60% shooting from the field, and 42.5% from three over the first seven games of the year.

Alongside Tatum (who put up 24 points, 12 assists, and eight rebounds on Sunday along with the game-winning shot), the Celtics have one of the strongest and youngest dynamic duos in the league. Boston has a serious shot at taking down the Bucks, Heat, or Nets in the East not only this year but for years to come.

1/2/21

Christian Wood looks like the steal of free agency

Turmoil surrounded the Rockets this offseason. GM Daryl Morey stepped down, head coach Mike D’Antoni did not return, star Russell Westbrook was traded to the Wizards and face of the franchise James Harden publicly requested a trade — and Morey’s new team, the Philadelphia 76ers, are near the top of Harden’s list. This seems like a difficult offseason for a team to come away with a victory, but the Rockets found a way to do just that.

On the first day of free agency, the Rockets signed rising star Christian Wood to a 3y/$41M contract. Through Wood’s first four games, this is looking like an absolute robbery as Wood is averaging just under 24 points, 11 rebounds, and just over two blocks a game, while shooting a healthy 56% from the field. On Saturday without James Harden, Wood put up 20 points, 15 rebounds, and four blocks, leading the way to an upset victory over the Kings.

It seems like it’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when the Rockets trade James Harden. They’re bound to wait until they can get the AD or Paul George level package they’re searching for, and that may not be until the trade deadline when a team shows desperation like the Lakers and Clippers did for those superstars. But Harden will be traded, and the Rockets may have already found their replacement star on quite a bargain of under $14 million a year. Christian Wood, John Wall, and the pieces the Rockets can accumulate in a Harden trade may be enough to keep the Rockets in the playoff hunt this year, and for years to come.

The gritty Thunder are proving their bright future could be sooner than later

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The Thunder may have been the biggest winner of the past offseason despite no intention of winning in 2020-21. The team made a surprising run into the postseason last year after it seemed as if they were blowing it up when they traded Russell Westbrook and Paul George for all the first-round picks last offseason. The team replicated that blueprint this offseason, trading just about everybody — even the guys they picked up in the initial trades — for picks, picks, and then more picks. The Thunder are loaded with draft capital, and appeared as if they were already looking towards next offseason. But their current roster has other plans.

People weren’t expecting much out of the Thunder, as many couldn’t name more than three guys on their team. Yet, the Thunder are playing very good basketball once again, this time led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Al Horford, George Hill, and a bunch of youngsters. OKC went into Orlando to face the 4-1 Magic and completely outplayed them in an impressive 108-99 victory. Six guys scored in double figures while two more were just a bucket away as the Thunder showcased their depth and toughness.

The Thunder likely won’t make the playoffs this year and they aren’t expected to. However, they have an influx of first-rounders over the next five drafts, and are playing at a very competitive level of basketball right now that should have Thunder fans not only excited for the future, but for their present, as well. Don’t be surprised if the Thunder are in the playoff hunt much sooner than most expected, maybe even by next season.

1/1/21

Chris Paul is the most underrated closer in the NBA

Wherever Chris Paul has gone, winning has followed. That isn’t a coincidence. CP3 is one of the best passers in NBA history who’s proven to make his teammates around him better. Not only has his IQ positively influenced his passing abilities on the floor, it’s also made him a leader and a prototype veteran player that uses wisdom and experience to beat his matchups and find different ways in every possession to put the ball in the basket. 

His IQ has now transformed his mindset into being a cold-blooded killer. Time and time again, CP3 is making the plays at the end of the game to lead his team to victory. No matter if he’s wearing a white Clippers jersey, red Rockets jersey, blue OKC jersey, or orange Suns uniform, Paul can be witnessed putting the final touches on victories in the game’s most important moments. He doesn’t get enough credit for his clutch factor, but the film and stats show he’s a top-3 player during crunch time and steps up when it matters most. 

Don’t be surprised if DC is the 1st NBA Playoff team to ever start 0-5

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Washington got off to as bad of a start as possible, losing all five of their first five games of the season. Interestingly, Russell Westbrook played in four of them, and got a triple-double in each one, yet it wasn’t enough to translate to wins. With Westbrook sitting for the second time this season already, the Wiz finally got their first non-bubble win since the NBA season was suspended in March. 

Even without suiting them up, Russ still had a positive impact on DC in this game as shown by him teaching some of the youngsters tips on reading the game and “rocking the baby” with Bradley Beal. It couldn’t have been expected for Russ to click with this new team right from the jump. Two of the most ball-dominant players in the league had never played a game together before. It was always going to take time for this team to get it together. 

Now that they have Rui Hachimura back and balling as a Sophomore, along with a solid supporting cast around them, the Wiz have the roster that can contend (especially if they add a premier defender at the deadline). As they gain more chemistry and continuity, they can get over their early-season hurdles and potentially become the first team ever to go from 0-5 to clinching a postseason berth. If that would ever happen in the NBA, it would be a newly-constructed team like DC with early injuries they had to overcome in a season like 2020-21 where momentum can change as quick as ever without fans in the stands. 

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