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TGS BRACKETOLOGY UPDATE & NBA ALL-STAR BREAK REVIEW

As promised a few weeks ago, we’re updating our Big Dance brackets weekly, with another comprehensive “Bracketology” report coming soon. Remember, we’re just four weeks away from Selection Sunday! Below is our latest TGS “seeding queue” as of February 12.

1-Gonzaga, Baylor, Kansas, San Diego State; 2-Duke, Dayton, Auburn, Maryland; 3-Seton Hall, Florida State, Kentucky, Louisville; 4-Penn State, Villanova, Butler, West Virginia; 5-Creighton, Colorado, Michigan State, Oregon; 6-Iowa, LSU, Texas Tech, Marquette; 7-Arizona, Ohio State, BYU, Houston; 8-Oklahoma, Illinois, Northern Iowa, Michigan; 9-Rutgers, Virginia, Rhode Island, Saint Mary’s; 10-Xavier, USC, Wisconsin, Liberty; 11-Florida, Purdue, Furman, Cincinnati; 12-Arkansas, Yale, Stanford*, Wichita State*, Indiana*, East Tennessee State*; 13-Vermont, New Mexico State, Wright State, Stephen F Austin; 14-Colgate, Little Rock, North Texas, South Dakota State; 15-Murray State, Bowling Green, Winthrop, Eastern Washington; 16-Hofstra, UC Irvine, NC Central*, Robert Morris*, Prairie View*, Rider*.

*-Play-in game participants

Last four byes...Florida, Purdue, Cincinnati, Arkansas. Last four in...Stanford, Wichita State, Indiana, East Tennessee State; First four out...Memphis, NC State, Minnesota; Mississippi State; Next four out...Virginia Commonwealth, Utah State, Arizona State, Richmond.

NBA ALL-STAR BREAK REVIEW

by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor and P.Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

Following is our annual NBA All-Star break review, presented by conferences and standings within. Straight-up records are thru February 13.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

ATLANTIC DIVISION

Toronto Raptors (40-15)...Consider the 101-91 loss on Wednesday at Brooklyn to be nothing more than a minor course correction for the Raps, who took a stunning 15-game SU win streak into Barclays Center. It puts Toronto almost exactly where it was at this time a season ago when the Raps were on their way to the title. Even minus Kawhi Leonard, Nick Nurse has kept the champs afloat despite a series of injuries around the holidays (Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell) and a bit earlier (Kyle Lowry missed most all of November) that shortened rotations. The emergence of Siakam (23.5 ppg), flourishing in a role similar to Kawhi a season ago, has been one of the pleasant surprises of the campaign. Over the course of the recent win streak, Nurse’s team had the NBA’s top-ranked offense, and the defense ranks sixth overall this term, though a couple of breakdowns in the last week are a minor concern. The All-Star break allows the Raps a chance to further heal, and the fact GM Masai Ujiri didn’t do any serious buying at the deadline suggests the Raps believe they can make another title run with the current cast. Note 16-9 home chalk mark into break, including 11-3 laying 6 ½ or more at Scotiabank Arena.

Boston Celtics (38-16)...As has often been the case in the Danny Ainge era, the Celtics were in the middle of the rumor mill at the deadline but once again stayed on the sidelines. Still, the thought persists that Ainge could get involved in the post-All-Star buyout market if a bit of size and toughness on the blocks became available (though that candidate pool seems shallow). But Brad Stevens nonetheless has Boston poised to make a run after dealing with a succession of injury absences yet effectively staying abreast of Toronto in the Atlantic despite having played a tougher schedule thus far than the Raps. That eases a bit in March, but Boston hits the break in middle of stretch of 10 of 14 games against teams currently .500 or above. Among the rising stars on the roster, note Jayson Tatum’s near 27 ppg in recent 12-game stretch that included a 7-game SU win streak. Having the NBA’s third-best defense has allowed Stevens to navigate around some of the many lost games to various hurts, and should keep Celtics nicely afloat. Even after recent three straight spread Ls, Boston is still an impressive 32-20 vs. number after recovering for a rousing double-OT win and cover vs. the Clips on Thursday.

Philadelphia 76ers (34-21)...Rarely are the home-road dynamics as stark as they are with the Sixers, who can’t seem to lose at Wells Fargo Center (25-2 SU into break!) but haven’t been able to win lately on road, losing 5 in a row and 11 of 13, failing against all sorts of teams (including Magic and Hawks) in that stretch of away games. The once-carefully constructed Philly roster left itself a big gap on the offseason when not filling the shooter roles occupied by Jimmy Butler (who had become the first option in the playoffs last spring) and JJ Redick; with Ben Simmons still uncomfortable with his shot, the Sixers have too often seen foes sag inside to make life difficult for Joel Embiid, daring Tobias Harris and others to shoot for Philly. The offseason addition of Al Horford, ostensibly to provide relief for Embiid and provide a viable option on the nights big Joel must rest, has thus far provided mixed (at best) results. Coming up empty at the trade deadline (when Derrick Rose and others were apparently on the radar) in their quest for a dagger-thrower from the perimeter, Philly’s last option for help might be a roll of the dice in the buyout market. But unless the Sixers get home edge in every playoff series, the season likely ends in the early rounds of the playoffs, which could cost HC Brett Brown his job.

Brooklyn Nets (25-28)...Even in a disjointed season that has been impacted by various injuries, the Nets are safely tucked into the 7th slot in the East playoff queue into the break and rate an intriguing postseason darkhorse if all hands ever get on deck. That likely won’t include offseason splash addition Kevin Durant, who has missed the entire season mending his Achillea tendon tear from last June’s Finals and likely won’t appear until the 2020-21 campaign. Surly but dangerous Kyrie Irving thus rates as the East’s postseason wild card because of his explosive scoring (27.4 pgp), but he’s also played in less than half (20) of Brooklyn’s 53 games due to a variety of injuries, currently a knee problem that has kept him out since Feb. 1 (Irving scored 54 in the previous game vs. the Bulls). Spencer Dinwiddie has proven a capable replacement at the point, however, and even without Irving, Brooklyn is not an easy “out” as its five straight covers into the break would attest. If Irving could stay healthy, however, the Nets might be a team to avoid in the postseason.

New York Knicks (17-38)...The Knicks have almost doubled their win pace from last season but that’s about as far as the glass-is-half-full crowd can venture as New York remains far from relevance. A status unlikely to change as long as owner James Dolan calls this shots (if they could, New York fans might enlist Adam Schiff for an impeachment effort against Dolan and Mets owner Fred Wilpon, but we digress.) Along the way yet another coaching regime (that of smilin’ David Fizdale) bit the dust, and the Knicks have displayed moderate upgrades for interim replacement Mike Miller, with key offseason addition Julius Randle (19.3 ppg) enjoying a productive first season at MSG. But for the moment, the Knicks are again into seeing who might fit into future plans (Marcus Morris, enjoying a career year before being moved to the Clippers at the deadline, wasn’t), and wondering if sorts like Duke rookie wing RJ Barrett and second-year Kentucky F Kevin Knox can be cornerstone pieces moving forward. After swinging and missing on most of the big FA names last summer, the Knicks probably try it again this year. But with the current organizational power structure, can the Knicks do any better than the second-tier sorts they added last summer?

CENTRAL DIVISION

Milwaukee Bucks (46-8)...Motivated by the bitter East Finals loss to the Raptors last spring when coughing up a 2-0 lead, the Bucks are using that disappointment as fuel in a quest to bring the city its first NBA title since 1971, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still known to the masses as Lew Alcindor and Oscar Robertson proved he had something left in the tank in the twilight of his career. Milwaukee is well on its way to securing home edge in the playoffs for the second straight year...but making it pay off this time. While Giannis generates the headlines and is again in MVP contention (no alarm that he missed Wednesday’s loss at Indiana), it’s elite defense that is the real secret recipe for HC Mike Budenholzer, as the Bucks rate the best on the stop end by a wide margin. Adding Marvin Williams in the buyout market gives Budenholzer another stretch-four to space the floor and also give Khris Middleton a bit more rest ahead of the playoffs. Milwaukee is a deserving title favorite, but pick spots carefully with some of these spreads the Bucks are asked to carry; laying 9 ½ or more at home, Milwaukee is only 10-11 vs. the line into the break.

Indiana Pacers (32-23)...While in no danger of missing the playoffs, the Pacers need to change their recent downward trajectory quick if they want to secure home advantage in the first round, which they seemed on course to do until a few weeks ago. What happened? Not coincidentally, the return of Victor Oladipo from a near year-long absence appeared to upset the apple-cart and contributed to a recent 6-game slide that was only halted when beating Giannis-less Milwaukee last Wednesday. Nate McMillan at first was trying to slot Oladipo into his rotations, but in recent games has moved him into the starting lineup, with somewhat dubious results (Oladipo is shooting only 25% from the floor in his first seven games since returning to active duty). That would expect to improve as the season moves into March and April, but the adjustment phase seems to have cost Indiana some games that could make the difference between being home or not home in the first round. Oladipo’s return has also roughly coincided with Indy’s 8-2 “over” mark its last ten before the break.

Chicago Bulls (19-36)...Hampered by recurring injuries, the Bulls have not been able to sustain anything close to a significant surge; in fact, Chicago’s best stretches are a mere pair of 2-game win streaks in one of the more curious developments of the season! Appearing to be hanging onto his job by a thread is the perpetually-tortured HC Jim Boylen, who has not fared any better than predecessor Fred Hoiberg as the franchise continues to spin its wheels. The current list of walking wounded includes Otto Porter (broken foot), Wendell Carter Jr. (ankle), Lauri Markkanen (hip), Kris Dunn (knee), and Daniel Gafford (ankle), and the thought persists that if Chicago could just get healthy, maybe it could still make a run at the last East playoff slot, currently occupied by the Magic (five games ahead). But Chicago is running out of track to make a move, and the team hasn’t been able to stay healthy all season; why should February and March be any different? Shorthanded, the defense has also disappeared in the last two weeks, contributing to six SU losses on the spin into the break. More interesting is the current 8-game “over” streak that will get its next chance Feb. 20 vs. the Hornets.

Detroit Pistons (19-36)...The good news is that the Pistons seem to have veered out of contention for the 8th playoff slot in the East, sparing another potentially embarrassing beatdown by the top-seeded Bucks. As was the case last spring when Milwaukee outclassed Detroit in a basketball version of Tom Osborne’s Nebraska annually throttling old Big 8 foes such as Kansas and Kansas State on the gridiron. The bad news is that whatever blueprint to getting the Pistons relevant again seems to have been lost, as developments at Little Caesars Arena at the just-passed trade deadline had all to do with which pieces Detroit would sell. Andre Drummond’s departure (and salary shed) was expected, though many were surprised Detroit didn’t also move vet G Derrick Rose, who has been one of the lone bright spots in Motown and looked a low-risk, high-reward chance for a contender. But the asking price was apparently too high, and the rest of the season appears a continuation of a campaign that began to go sideways before Christmas, shortly before Blake Griffin was lost for the season due to knee problems. Now the focus is on what the front office does with extra cap space in the summer as the serious rebuild commences.

Cleveland Cavaliers (14-40)...This might not have been what now-67-year-old John Beilein was expecting in his first stab at the NBA after a decorated college coaching career that included a couple of title game appearances and icon status at recent stop Michigan. But Beilein might wish he were back in Ann Arbor after a difficult slog with a mis-mash roster of young (including a Collin Sexton-Darius Garland backcourt pair that still had multiple years of eligibility remaining in the SEC) and old pieces. The latter includes Fs Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson, both rumored to be bound for various destinations into the trade deadline. Instead the Cavs added C Andre Drummed from Detroit, creating the possibility of speeding $60 mill on a Love-Drummond frontline pairing next season that might be the slowest the NBA has seen in years. Along the way the Cavs have had five SU losing streaks of five games or more. Judging from the recent TV optics at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, however, not many people are showing up to watch the show (can we blame them?). Not even a respected hoops tactician like Beilein can sort out this mess.

SOUTHEAST DIVISION

Miami Heat (35-19)...Erik Spoelstra has been getting peripheral mention in Coach of the Year discussions for steering the Heat quickly back into contention after Miami had faded in the final stages of the recently-concluded Dwyane Wade era. Adding Jimmy Butler in the offseason proved a nice catalyst but also note some other shrewd work in the personnel market, especially adding FA rookie G Kendrick Nunn (who has been a revelation), that has catapulted the Heat back to serious contender status. More good moves at the deadline by adding vet wing Andre Iguodala (who hadn’t played all season in Memphis but has been effective in early work for Spoelstra) and active F Jae Crowder (who scored 19.5 ppg and grabbed 9.5 rpg in his first two games with Miami), both looking like they could pay real dividends. As long as the shoulder injury Butler suffered just before the All-Star break isn’t serious (and it is not reported to be), Miami looks as if it could be dangerous in the playoffs. The Heat is already so at home, where it stands 22-3 SU and 17-8 vs. the line into the break.

Orlando Magic (24-31)...Some team has to grab the 8th spot in the playoffs and it might as well be the Magic, whose goal after the All-Star break will be to try and overtake Brooklyn for the 7th seed and avoid the prospect of being fed to the Bucks in the first round. By the time we get to March, HC Steve Clifford ought to have versatile 6-10 Jonathan Isaac (also a top-tier defender) back from a knee injury. And, for the most, part, it’s been defense as stressed by Clifford that has kept Orlando afloat. The problem is on offense, where the Magic ranks second from bottom in the league entering the break. Orlando didn;pt add much at the deadline but did hold onto trade targets Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier, who had generated much interest, which suggests that the Magic can probably hang onto their slot deep in the East playoff queue. Making the postseason is still special for the fan base that went seven years between playoff appearances, but that’s about as far as the fell-good goes in Disney region. Home wins before the break vs. the Hawks and Pistons at least reminded that Orlando can still take care of business vs. the lesser entries in the league.

Washington Wizards (20-33)...The Wizards have occasionally looked like they were ready to make a move to the safe side of the playoff cut-line, especially on the many nights when G Bradley Beal has been the Southeast Division version of Damian Lillard, seemingly willing the Wiz into contention by himself, including a recent stretch of seven games when Beal scored 37 pg and Washington won four times. The Wiz did decide to keep sharpshooter Davis Bertans (who had generated a lot of interest) at the deadline, and young frontliners Rui Hachimura and Mo Wagner have recently returned to active duty. Getting oft-injured C Thomas Bryant healthy again could still fuel a late charge to the back of the playoff queue, though it will require Orlando to fade, and the Magic’s schedule down the stretch looks much easier than the Wiz slate. “Totals” alert–Wiz 18-9 “over” on the road into break.

Charlotte Hornets (18-36)...As some of the locals feared in the offseason, the inability to retain G Kemba Walker left too big of a hole in the roster for HC James Borrego to effectively fill. So this effectively became a season of transition in Charlotte, as recent buyouts of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams confirm. Next on the list is likely to be Nicolas Batum., who doesn’t fit into the long-range plans, either, as the Hornets likely seek a taker for the Frenchy in the summer. A couple of building blocks moving forward look to be ex-Kansas G Devonte’ Graham, who has blossomed into a legit NBA threat (18.1 ppg) in his second year, while Kentucky rookie F P.J. Washington (though slumping lately) has been a pleasant surprise. Much like the in-town NFL Panthers, however, the Hornets are in rebuild mode, though they played hard enough to beat a couple of downtrodden foes (Detroit and Minnesota) on the road before the break after losing SU in 13 of the previous 14.

Atlanta Hawks (15-41)...The Hawks at least look as if they might have a plan for the future, even though it was a bit confusing to see them seemingly enlist almost every center in the NBA before the deadline. Of those, ex-Rocket Clint Capela (currently nursing a heel injury) might rate a viable building block moving forward alongside F John Collins and G Trae Young. The early-season 25-game suspension of Collins put the campaign off-course almost from the outset, and there is still a question whether 2nd-year HC Lloyd Pierce is capable of leading a resurgence. But the Hawks are at least fun to watch on nights when Young has located his radar, and have been holding their own vs. the line (12-10-1 last 23 into break) since New Year’s. At least Atlanta seems to be trying, which is more than can be said for some of the league’s other stragglers.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

PACIFIC DIVISION

L.A. Lakers (41-12)...The Lakers are sitting atop the extremely tough Western Conference standings with the second-best record in the league, but they should be looking over their shoulders and seeing a dangerous challenge right in their own back yard. The Lakers couldn’t pull off a trade at the deadline, as they need help in the backcourt, a solid wing defender and some depth to help ease the burden off of LeBron James and Anthony Davis down the stretch. None of that happened, despite Rob Pelinka’s best efforts, which might not be totally his fault, as the rest of the league has been reticent to deal with the hated Lake Show in recent seasons. Still, LeBron is healthy and at the top of his game, A-D is a force at both ends and the team is second in the league in net rating and offensive efficiency, 3rd in effective FG% and is 4th in rebounding percentage. However, there are worries; Lakers just 12th in 3-point FG%, 23rd in turnovers...and one pulled hamstring away from being just another team.

L.A. Clippers (37-18)...Sorry Laker fans, the Clippers are the team to beat in the West, as they might’ve proven after beating the Lakers in first 2 meetings this season. Kawhi Leonard has a pair of NBA Finals MVP trophies on his wall, and right now defending him and attacking him in crunchtime is a very tall order. Doc Rivers’ Clips are really better than their record would indicate, as they’ve “load managed” Leonard this season, and are 31-10 SU, 25-16 vs. the points with Leonard in the lineup compared with 6-7 SU and 4-9 vs. the points when he rests. The deadline addition of Marcus Morris from the Knicks makes the most effective bench in the league even deeper, and he will help in a projected Western Conference Final matchup against the Lakers at both ends of the floor. All-star Paul George is 6-8 and up to the task of matching up against LeBron, plus hitting 40% of his threes this season. Once PG Patrick Beverley returns to full health from his groin injury, all the pieces will be in place for a potential West- deciding Staples Center matchup vs. the Lakers in later spring.

Phoenix Suns (22-33)...Phoenix is definitely a team rising from the ashes. The Suns won just 19 games last term and an NBA low 21 the year before, but this season have risen to 19th in victories and 15th in net rating. G Devin Booker is an all-star, scoring 26.4 ppg on 50% shooting and exhibiting more leadership and consistency. The addition of vet PG Ricky Rubio has been a definite positive, as his 8.6 apg has taken much of the distribution load off of Booker’s plate. The blossoming of 5th-year professional F Kelly Oubre Jr., who’s at career-highs in scoring rebounding FG%, has been a blessing in the Valley of the Sun. Second-year C Deandre Ayton got past his suspension and is producing 19 ppg and 12 rpg, providing a dangerous third scoring option for Sun HC Monty Williams as well as being a formidable paint protector. Phoenix is making progress, but in a division with the Lakers, Clippers and (next year) the Warriors, it’s tough to improve in the pecking order going forward.

Sacramento Kings (21-33)...Sacramento has regressed a bit this season under GM Vlade Divac and HC Luke Walton, which won 48% of the time last year compared with 39% in 2019-2020. While Buddy Hield (20 ppg, 39% on threes) and De’Aaron Fox (20 ppg, 47% FGs) have advanced, injuries have limited Marvin Bagley III to just 6 starts and 13 total appearances, although acquiring Jabari Parker will help fill the power forward spot with an economical alternative in the short run. While Bogdan Bogdanovic has his moments, he’s only shooting 43% overall, and the team acquired Kent Bazemore, who’s on an expiring contract, mostly for salary cap relief, saving $22M next season by dealing Trevor Ariza. The albatross of Harrison Barnes’ contract will be hanging over the team for three more seasons, the defense hasn’t improved at all over a year ago as the Kings rank in the 20s in true shooting, turnover & assist percentage as well as defense. They are what they are. Sacramento isn’t high on the list of free agents, Divac has dug them into a salary cap hole that won’t be clearing up for two years even if they were a destination, and they haven’t gotten really lucky in the draft. Vlade a dead man walking?

Golden State Warriors (12-43)...Life, and the Warriors being at the foot of the Western Conference standings are only temporary. No one is shedding any tears for Steve Kerr’s Golden State side, as Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green generated more than their share of hate over the past few seasons. Now Curry and Thompson are on the shelf, Durant is under contract with the Nets rehabbing his Achilles, and Green is playing sparingly (29 mpg playing in just 41 of the first 55 contests. Draymond’s numbers are also a bit alarming, as the Warrior front office has to take note of his dips in shooting percentage, rebounding, assists and blocks this year, but what can they do...they’re stuck with him for the next four seasons at an average of just under $25M per. Word is Thompson and Curry will be ready to go when needed next season, and the addition of Andrew Wiggins might be a benefit, as early returns (23 ppg, 58% plus solid defense as well in 1st 3 as a Warrior) are encouraging, and he was the first pick in the draft six years ago and a 20 ppg scorer in his career. On the upside, Golden State will likely have the best shot at first pick in the draft and should get a cheap starter going forward (Memphis C James Wiseman might fit in nicely), and the Warriors have had plenty of test minutes with their G-League-level talent to see who might help. F Eric Paschall has showed promise, 3rd-year F Damion Lee has had career-high and journeyman PF Marquese Chriss has exceeded production in every category compared with his career averages while playing the same amount of minutes. Steph will be back and clean up the mess left at the Chase Center by this year’s squatters.

NORTHWEST DIVISION

Denver Nuggets (38-17)...When the season began, Denver was one of the “flavors of the month” in total wins play, as only three teams closed with a nigher number than the Nuggets’ predicted total of 53½ victories. C Nikola Jokic and PG Jamal Murray are on course to exceed that number, with a SU winning percentage of .691, but pointspread success has been flat (26-25-4) and Denver finds itself in a fight with Utah for the lead in the Northwest Division. HC Michael Malone has done a nice job managing injuries, as Murray has missed 10 games, PF Paul Millsap 20, starting wing Will Barton (7) and key contributors G Gary Harris (9) and & Michael Porter Jr. (16), so a complete return to health of the roster (including now injured backup C Mason Plumlee) will be key to Denver’s quest for the NW crown. Denver has played at a markedly lower pace the last three seasons, likely taking advantage of the playmaking ability of Jokic, who plays “point center” as well as any big man in the league. Murray is now a bona fide star, hitting career highs in scoring and FG% this year. The injuries to Millsap, Porter and Plumlee have collectively had more than a bit to do with the Nuggets dropping from 2nd last year to 7th this season in overall rebound percentage. Again, having all hands on deck for the playoffs will be key for Denver to return to the Western Conference semifinal level it achieved last season, which broke a 5-year playoff absence.

Utah Jazz (36-18)...Quin Snyder has done a remarkable job rejuvenating Utah after it fell into the doldrums with the retirement of HC Jerry Sloan and the short-lived reign of Tyrone Corbin. After starting 78-86 and being shut out of the postseason in Snyder’s first two seasons, the Jazz have averaged 50 wins and been to the playoffs three straight campaigns, twice advancing to the Western semifinals. After slipping to 13-11 SU after a home loss to the Thunder on Dec. 9, Utah has been playing some sweet jazz music on the court, winning 23 of 30 to pull to within 1½ games of the division lead. G Donovan Mitchell and PF Bojan Bogdanovich have combined for 45.3 ppg and shot a combined 46%, C Rudy Gobert (16 ppg, 15 rpg; a 2-time defensive player of the year) was finally recognized as an all-star after being snubbed several times, and feisty Aussie F Joe Ingles has provided an additional outside threat and given the Jazz a sharp edge. The only thing that hasn’t exactly worked out as planned as of yet has been the acquisition of PG Mike Conley, who has proved a bit fragile (missed 21 games thus far) and has produced beneath is career averages in scoring, assists, steals and FG% (although he was heating up, scoring 20 ppg and shooting 47% in his last 4 games before sitting his last 2 due to illness). The Jazz need the home court, as they are 20-5 at the Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City this season, and that might necessitate catching Denver for the division title. Not an impossible task considering they play home-and-home set with the Nuggets in the final 9 days of the season.

Oklahoma City Thunder (33-22)...OKC has been one of the surprises in the Western Conference this season. Not much was expected of the Thunder after being stripped of all-stars Paul George and Russell Westbrook in the offseason, and starting the season just 6-11 looked as if they would be an easy “under” on their predicted total win total of 32½. But OKC won its 33rd game in New Orleans Thursday in their last day before the break. HC Billy Donovan had done a great job polishing of the uncut gem that is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (19.5 ppg, 47%). Additionally the infusion of former Clipper Danilo Gallinari (19 ppg, 5.7 rpg; 40% on treys) and PG Chris Paul (17.5 ppg, 6.6 apg; 49%) coupled with tfrontline work of Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel (combined 19 ppg, 14.4 rpg sharing minutes in the pivot) are the lightning powering the storm in OKC. The Thunder entrenched in the playoff picture and just 4 games out of the 4th seed. Not a bad place to be after being predicted to finish with a .396 win percentage!

Portland Trailblazers (25-31)...Portland has fallen more than a few notches off last season’s 53-win regular season and advancing to the Western Conference final before being swept out of the playoffs by Golden State. Jusuf Nurkic had his peak season a year ago, when he scored 16 ppg and grabbed 10.4 rpg, but he’s yet to play in 2019-20 due to injuries. The addition of Carmelo Anthony has helped, as the Blazers, who started 5-12 this season, are 20-19 since Anthony became acclimated and began making a serious contribution. Anthony has scored 15 ppg and provided 6.6 rpg in 40 games, although his shooting and production has fallen off in recent weeks (11 ppg, 33% last 9Gs). Now for the bad news. The Trail Blazers have been carried by G Damian Lillard, whose 30 ppg has been augmented lately by a string of Herculean performances. Now the injury bug has struck again, as Lillard injured his groin  just before the break and likely won’t be available when the team begins to play after the break, and could likely miss a good deal more time. If he’s not ready pronto, the Blazers start falling back in the pack that’s chasing Memphis for the 8th spot in the playoffs.

Minnesota Timberwolves (16-37)...Uggghhh! Clearly things were not going according to plan. The Timberwolves added HC Tom Thibodeau and then wing Jimmy Butler to No. 1 draft picks C Karl Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, and prospects looked great after rising to 47-35 and a playoff berth in 2017-18. Now, flash forward to Butler being dealt to Philly after playing just 10 games for Minny last year, Thibodeau being fired in midseason with a 19-21 record for 2018-19, and then dealing Wiggins to Golden State for D’Angelo Russell (Russell’s 4th team in 5 seasons in the league). Minnesota has a 9-33 SU record since Nov. 13, ranks 27th in points allowed, 26th in turnovers committed and will very shortly have an “eliminated from playoffs” symbol by their name in the standings. To call the Timberwolf situation a dumpster fire would be slighting the dumpster fires of the world. Minny’s 7-20 SU mark at the Target Center is the second-worst home mark in the league, and surely HC Ryan Saunders can’t be long for this world (well, his job in Minneapolis...no reason to be morbid).

SOUTHWEST DIVISION

Houston Rockets (34-20)..Have to give Houston HC Mike D’Antoni credit for his Trump-like doubling down on what looks like very questionable behavior. Dealing Clint Capela at the deadline gave the Rockets one of the smallest starting fives in decades, and made their reliance on taking and making treys (a league-high 43 attempts per game) crucial. Their souped-up pace has resulted in more than 106 possessions per game (2nd in the NBA), and their defense ranks 15th in efficiency. Gs James Harden and Russell Westbrook must outscore opponents, and that becomes much tougher without Capela’s 14 ppg, 14 rpg and 2 bpg every night. Eric Gordon has missed 15 games this season, although he’s expected to be healthy and ready after the All-Star break, it’s his 37% shooting that has to have Rocket fans on edge despite the occasional explosion (50 pts. vs. Utah Jan. 27, for example). Dealing Capela for Covington is dubious, especially considering Covington’s slow start in Houston, and it’s possible the team was strictly trying to save some money under the cap. The Rockets are basically married to Westbrook, Harden and Gordon, who are due a total of $320M in the next 3 seasons, which is problematical, considering the Rockets haven’t been to the Finals since Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler were playing and Rudy Tomjanovich was coach 25 years ago. Rockets on track to record fewest wins in Mike D’Antoni’s tenure.

Dallas Mavericks (33-22)...Things are happening in Dallas, where Luka Doncic has returned from injury and is powering the rebuilt Mavs back to the playoffs for the first time since 2015-16. Doncic is scoring 29 ppg, taking 9.5 rpg and 8.7 apg this season, just his 2nd in the NBA. Ex-Knick 7-3 PF Kristaps Porzingis is proving good value and looking completely recovered from his knee injury, scoring 18.4 ppg and grabbing a career-high 9.1 rpg, while a fairly deep bench has given HC Rick Carlisle the luxury of distributing double-digit minutes to 14 players this season. The Mavericks lead the league in offensive efficiency, scoring nearly 115 points per 100 possessions, second in turnover percentage and our only hesitation about Dallas going forward is the Achilles injury to C Dwight Powell, who wasn’t creating a ton of points, but was shooting 64% and giving a tough edge defensively, hitting career highs in rebounds. The Mark Cubans are just a win streak away from a hosting a first-round series and will make some noise in the playoffs.

Memphis Grizzlies (28-26)...Memphis hit the jackpot with Rookie of the Year favorite, ex-Murray State Ja Morant, who has scored 18 ppg, handed out 7.1 apg while shooting 49.3% overall. PF Jaren Jackson Jr. is at 17 ppg and 5 rpg and has shot 49% in his first 2 years in the NBA. Certainly, the Grizzlies are in much better shape than last season, when they finished tied for the 2nd-fewest wins in the Western Conference and 15 games out of the final playoff spot. Currently Memphis is 4 games in front of Portland and 5 games ahead of San Antonio and New Orleans as it bids to return to the postseason after missing the last 2 years (the Grizzlies had made the playoffs 7 straight season prior to a 7-12 start that ended David Fizdale’s shortlived tenure). Still, not sure missing the postseason would be the worst thing in the world for the franchise, which could use another piece to build for the future acquired through the draft. Memphis is also happy it acquired Dillon Brooks three years ago as the ex-Oregon Duck is leading the team in scoring over the last 15 games, scoring 17.3 ppg and hitting on 39% of his threes in that period for HC Taylor Jenkins. Big man Jonas Valanciunas has stayed healthy and had a typical year, scoring 15 ppg and grabbing 10.5 rpg while shooting a career-high 59%. Griz probably too talented and too hungry to miss the playoffs.

San Antonio Spurs (23-31)...Things aren’t going well for Gregg Popovich and the Spurs, on the outside looking in at a playoff party that they’ve been invited to 22 straight seasons, winning the title 5 times in that impressive run. The Spurs lay 5 games back with 26 to play at the break, and swingman DeMar DeRozen’s back injury is the latest setback for the San Antonio. DeRozen and PF LaMarcus Aldridge have combined for 42 ppg, and “Pop” has another 5 double-digit scorers available, but the defense hasn’t been there, as the Spurs are yielding 115 ppg and the defensive rating is the worst in the history of the franchise (dating to the 1967-68 Dallas Chaparrals!). This season the squad ranks ahead of only Atlanta, Washington and Cleveland in points per 100 possessions (sad company to be in for a team that once prided itself on the ability to shut down the best in the league when it counted). The Spurs haven’t “qualified” for the draft lottery since taking Tim Duncan, and it might be a decent starting point for a rebuild. After all, Aldridge is 34 years old, Rudy Gay 33 and both have suffered dips in production this season, while DeRozan has hit 30 and might be looking to decline his player option to see if he can get a final big contract. The team is heavily invested in G Dejounte Murray, who has an extension averaging $16M kicking in next season. Popovich has two more years to go (at $11M per) on his current deal, so he’s on board for at least that long (hey, he’s no dummy), but unless Murray suddenly turns the corner and starts to take charge (not likely), the Spurs are in limbo.

New Orleans Pelicans (23-32)...New Orleans is one of the most exciting young teams in the league (with the emphasis on young). Only J.J. Redick is over 30 and the roster has 10 players who are 25 or younger, including leading scorer Brandon Ingram (22) and man-child rookie Zion Williamson (19). The Pelicans had to wait for Williamson to make his debut, but it appears to have been worth it, as he’s provided highlight reel material on most nights scoring 21 ppg and pulling down 7.7 rpg in his first 9 games, topping 14 pts. in each of those (a feat previously equaled by only 3 rookies...Dikembe Mutombo, Patrick Ewing and Michael Jordan). Brandon Ingram is playing like he’s trying to get a nice fat contract (which he is, as he can become a restricted free agent), putting forth his absolute best, with career-highs in scoring (25 ppg), rebounding (6.4), assists (4.2) and 3-point shooting (a lofty 40%) through the first 47 games. Additionally, he’s been more durable, playing in 47 of the first 54 games, and is on pace to exceed his appearances over each of the L2Ys (52 LY, 59 in 2017-18). It appears the sky’s the limit if the ‘Can front office can spend its money wisely and perhaps add a big (Derrick Favors isn’t signed for next season), and they will be a solid playoff team next season.
 


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