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Red-pen enthusiasts assemble! Year-end NBA report cards are here, in all their unrepressed glory, equally underrating your favorite team and overrating every team that isn’t your favorite team.
Grades are being doled out on a curve, relative to preseason expectations. The Sacramento Kings, an outfit projected to dwell in the Association’s basement, cannot be held to the same bar as the Milwaukee Bucks, a team that entered the season with actual hopes and dreams. That would be unnecessarily mean and unfair.
Big-picture outlooks will factor into these marks. A tanktastic group with an unflattering record but a promising foundation and direction will be viewed through rosier goggles than a so-so squad sporting little to no discernible trajectory.
Midseason coping mechanisms will be similarly paramount. How did a team respond to whiffing on its initial ceiling? Did it have the gall to shift accordingly? Did it stubbornly try to stay the course? What happened after it did? Are there any long-term repercussions, good or bad, to how unanticipated developments were tackled?
Performances in response to key injuries can only help a grade. They will not be used to detract from a team’s final tally, because context matters.
Let’s spill some red ink.
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Some may have expected the Atlanta Hawks to stave off bottom-10 status on defense, but their offense was never going to be good. Their best playmaker, Dennis Schroder, is equal parts exhilarating and stomach-churning, and they don’t have a go-to creator beyond him.
That lack of depth kept the Hawks in a weirdly awesome beta-test mode all year. Head coach Mike Budenholzer tried out a smorgasbord of half-court facilitators, particularly toward the end of the season following Kent Bazemore’s season-ending right knee injury.
Losing Bazemore opened the door for sophomore Taurean Prince. While he posted an effective field-goal percentage south of 41 and coughed up possessions more than 28 percent of the time in pick-and-rolls, he looks more comfortable working the on the ball overall.
Heading into Tuesday, Prince averaged 20.5 points and 3.9 points over his last 15 games while slashing 47.4/40.0/92.0. The Hawks were 4-11 during that stretch, and he didn’t spearhead some stark offensive reformation. But he also didn’t need to be a partial-season savior.
Atlanta is likely on track for a top-five pick, so it needs to see which of its young players are keepers. Prince added entertainment and developmental value amid all the losing, as evidenced by the 18 three-pointers (!) he launched in the Hawks’ season finale against the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday.
The same holds true for rookie John Collins, who’s a shoo-in for All-Rookie honors. The Hawks don’t yet know how to function defensively when he plays the 5, but that’ll come with time and better personnel. Despite standing 6’10”, he can already rebound and finish around the rim among centers.
Plus, Collins has flashed enough offensive tricks to work at the 4. He shot north of 35 percent on corner threes and busted out straight-line handles off the catch that would’ve turned Serge Ibaka into an All-NBA candidate five years ago.
Had Hawks not waited so long to kick up Collins’ playing time, their grade would be more favorable. Their capacity to remain somewhat watchable while tanking their hearts out is worth a passing mark.
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How in the frickity frick do the Boston Celtics own the Eastern Conference’s second-best record?
Like, seriously, how?
Situating themselves between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors would qualify as an overachievement if they were fully healthy. While their depth chart is impressive, it’s light on familiarity.
Just 41 percent of last season’s minutes are represented on the Celtics’ current roster. Only the Indiana Pacers (39 percent), New York Knicks (37 percent) and Los Angeles Clippers (36 percent) have lower continuity scores.
This turnover is not mitigated by an excess of experience. Boston is the NBA’s fourth-youngest team. Only two of its six most-used players are older than 24. Jayson Tatum, a 20-year-old rookie, leads the team in total minutes.
Again: Turning in 50-plus wins with this makeup would be absurd at full strength. The Celtics are anything but.
Gordon Hayward has been on the shelf since opening night after he suffered a dislocated left ankle and fractured tibia. Kyrie Irving, their top scorer, hasn’t played since March 11 and is done for the season following left knee surgery. Marcus Smart is recovering from a torn tendon in his right thumb that has kept him on the sidelines for as long as Irving. Resident defensive worker bee Daniel Theis is out for the year as well with a torn left meniscus.
Somehow, someway, the Celtics have clinched the East’s No. 2 seed. In all likelihood, they will limp into the postseason with a top-two defense. Their inability to generate consistent offense without Irving or Al Horford on the court is a concern, however. That’s ultimately what rips them from A-plus territory.
At the same time, talk about nitpicking. Tatum and Jaylen Brown shouldn’t be lifelines this early into their careers, and Terry Rozier, despite what Celtics Twitter maintains, is not a better scorer than Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard combined.
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Reasonable optimists had higher hopes for the Brooklyn Nets. Thirty wins seemed like a good benchmark for them after they added DeMarre Carroll, Allen Crabbe and D’Angelo Russell in the offseason. Missing it should be considered a mild disappointment.
Then again, come on. The Nets aren’t assembled to be more than the Association’s seventh- or eighth-worst team—not when Russell sits for almost half the year and Jeremy Lin misses all but one game.
Russell’s lack of improvement might be a red flag. He is the same offensive roller-coaster he was with the Los Angeles Lakers, and he has the defensive attention span of a hungry toddler wandering around a Disney World confectionary. He ranks 508th out of 514 players in ESPN.com’s defensive real plus-minus.
Limited reps in his new digs hasn’t helped anything. His left knee injury at the beginning of the year set the tone for a wonky campaign. And even if he registers as a flat-out disappointment, the Nets have a truckload of other feel-good stories.
Carroll will be among the most sought-after expiring contracts on the trade market this summer. Crabbe may still be immovable (two years, $37 million), but he doesn’t look as afraid to dribble. Ditto for Joe Harris, who is shooting better than 62 percent on more drives per game than guys like Buddy Hield, Patty Mills and Jabari Parker.
Spencer Dinwiddie spent the first chunk of season playing like a top-10 point guard and has pumped in more offensive value than CJ McCollum, according to NBA Math’s total points added. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson still doesn’t space the floor, but he ranks in 70th percentile of long-mid-range efficiency, according to Cleaning The Glass.
Caris LeVert is averaging 12.9 points and 4.2 assists since the end of January while putting down more than 39 percent of his treys. Jarrett Allen deserves All-Rookie second-team dap, as he might be a more offensively apt version of Clint Capela.
Progress is being made in Brooklyn, even if it doesn’t show up in the win column. The Nets have some interesting decisions to make, with Dinwiddie, Hollis-Jefferson and Russell all are due for raises by 2019-20. For now, they’re a pleasant mix of effort and upside.
Here’s to the NBA eventually implementing a “Good Job, Gob Effort” award, just so whatever team Kenny Atkinson is coaching can win it every year.
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Major ups to the post-All-Star-break Charlotte Hornets, who made serious strides on offense. They’re fourth in points scored per 100 possessions and—happy gasp—they score like top-10 attack whenever Kemba Walker takes a breather.
If the Hornets were electric-sliding their way into the summer with cap space or any discernible plan whatsoever, there might be more silver linings to glean from this season.
But they don’t have cap space or a plan, so there aren’t any other silver linings.
Newly instated president and general manager Mitch Kupchak will have to shed salary just for the Hornets to gain access to the non-taxpayer’s mid-level exception. Their place in the draft lottery (11th) is uninspiring. They don’t have enough trade chips besides Walker to strike a meaningful deal.
Head coach Steve Clifford has one year left on his contract and has a pre-existing relationship with Kupchak from his 2012-13 stint as an assistant with the Lakers, but his future is still up in the air. Charlotte will miss the playoffs for the third time in four years and doesn’t possess the flexibility to change much thanks to its cap situation.
Pivoting into a rebuild remains a distinct possibility. Walker is a free agent in 2019, and the Hornets shouldn’t want any part of his next deal. But owner Michael Jordan has traveled great lengths to keep them in the middle, and Kupchak isn’t exactly revered for his ground-up stratagems.
After a year like this, in which the Hornets hoped to craft an identity beyond “Kemba’s team,” they should be tipping their hand toward a clearer direction—something, anything, that portends what they’ll do next.
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Holy hell are the Chicago Bulls tough to grade.
They aren’t good. Or even close to good. They aren’t supposed to be. They need to be evaluated on that curve. And many of their kiddies have been fun.
Lauri Markkanen looks extremely comfortable on offense even when his shots aren’t finding nylon. His rebounding isn’t as dependent on Robin Lopez’s box-outs as you’d expect, either. Bobby Portis has transformed into an offensive force.
Kris Dunn’s early-season hot hand eventually cooled off, and he remains an unimpressive finisher at the rim, but he may be more equipped to copilot half-court attacks than initially believed. Denzel Valentine was coming along as an off-the-bounce shot-maker before his left knee injury.
Cristiano Felicio is worth his four-year, $32 million pact if you ignore his middling rebounding and rim protection. David Nwaba was a fantastic defensive find. Cameron Payne is regaining some of the rookie-year momentum he built with the Oklahoma City Thunder almost two seasons ago.
See? Good (or goodish) things! But what have we really learned about this team? Their small-time developmental victories meant something before Nikola Mirotic’s season debut, when they owned the NBA’s worst record. But a proper tank was too much to ask. They waited too long to move him and re-ignite the nosedive after that, and they have since resorted to aimless variety in attempt to make up ground.
Not one of the Bulls’ five-man lineups has topped 70 total minutes or appeared in 10 games since Feb. 1. They are no closer to understanding how much Zach LaVine is worth in restricted free agency than they were last June. He mustered 24 lukewarm appearances before heading back to the sidelines with tendinitis in his left knee.
All of this inconsistency would be forgivable if the Bulls were drowning in unequivocal building blocks, were on course for a top-five pick or were closing the year with detectable rhyme and reason. They aren’t. They have Lauri Markkanen, and a whole lot of questions from top to bottom. That’s it.
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Deploying a bottom-two defense while barely racking up 50 victories and dropping to fourth place in the Eastern Conference does nothing to strengthen the Cavaliers’ championship case.
Whereas LeBron James represented the overwhelming majority of the Cavs’ title appeal last season, he is now their everything. They cannot talk themselves into being deeper than their four-time MVP in the aftermath of Kyrie Irving’s departure and a subsequent midseason overhaul.
Combine James’ scoring with the points he’s generated from assists, and he accounts for more than 45 percent of the Cavaliers’ entire offense. That’s the highest individual share in the league and the third-largest of his career.
That shouldn’t be a thing. Not for someone in his 15th season, playing out his age-33 campaign, surrounded by a supporting cast that costs more than $100 million.
And yet, are the Cavaliers a genuine underachiever? Or are they just being held to unrealistic standards?
They don’t have the personnel to be much better on defense. Kevin Love has missed more than 20 games, and he logs most of his time at center. Jose Calderon is fifth on the team in games stated. Head coach Tyronn Lue has burned through almost 30 opening lineups and is committed to milking Jeff Green’s, ahem, versatility for all of eternity.
That says all you need to know about the Cavaliers’ season. (Green, to his credit, is playing well!) And they’ll still probably cruise their way into the NBA Finals.
Winning a best-of-seven series against the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets appears to be out of the question once they get there, but they seem poised to, in fact, get there. They’re 15-10 versus the East’s playoff teams, and James continues to be the barometer for the rest of the conference.
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The 2017-18 Dallas Mavericks: egregious tankers, cut with itemized watchability.
Owner Mark Cuban didn’t need to get fined $600,000 for us to know his team was trying to plumb rock bottom. Head coach Rick Carlisle’s closing lineups were already sending that message.
Dallas’ most-used fourth-quarter units of late almost exclusively include members of Mavs Gaming. OK, fine, that isn’t true. But Kyle Collinsworth, Aaron Harrison, Jalen Jones and Maxi Kleber each averaged more than seven minutes per final frame throughout March. That goes beyond a typical devotion to growing the youth.
Most tend to give the Mavericks a pass compared to other tank artists. Not-so-mysterious injuries—and suspensions, in Nerlens Noel’s case—have made it easier for them to justify faux research-and-development rotations, and they’ve turned over their offense to an erratic rookie point guard.
Carlisle’s genius helps, too. The Mavericks have obliterated their defensive ceiling. They’re 18th in points allowed per 100 possessions on the season, and they rank 16th since the All-Star break. They’ve done a nice job limiting looks around the rim and contesting corner threes almost irrespective of who’s on the floor.
Dallas has issues. Smith’s inefficiency is concerning even for someone with one of the seven highest first-year usage rates in NBA history, and his partnership with Harrison Barnes is unnatural. The offense produces like a bottom-two attack when they share the floor. Barnes is an odd fit off the ball and has taken only baby steps as a foul-drawer and playmaker.
Still, the prospect of adding a top-five prospect to this squad comes as a meaningful comfort. The Mavs have cap space, a sideline sage and a capable mix of projects and veterans. Their tank carries substance.
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Defense, schmeefense. The Denver Nuggets are who they’re supposed to be.
That won’t change if they fall to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the No. 8 Seed Bowl on Wednesday night. But a loss will sting. Heads might roll. Head coach Mike Malone will be pinned to the hot seat by fans, the media and, perhaps, the organization.
Regardless of what happens Wednesday, the Nuggets boosting their win total by a half-dozen games isn’t something to sneeze at. They flexed their up-and-coming appeal over the summer with the addition of Paul Millsap. His arrival signaled all kinds of things—among them a tepid free-agent market. But it also acted as an auto-bid in the postseason fracas.
No one predicted Millsap would miss more than half the year. That Denver is above water at all should supersede whatever ending the regular season has in store.
Sure, the Nuggets are flawed. They’re 26th in points allowed per 100 possessions. They’re better, almost average, with Millsap on the floor, but pieced together this roster without regard for defensive depth on the wings. They won’t get better.
On the flip side, they’re sixth in offensive efficiency. And they score like the league’s best attack whenever Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray are in tandem. Jokic’s warts are forever hyperbolized by those uncomfortable with his rise through the NBA ranks. He’s an advanced-stat starling. Catch-all metrics see him as a top-10 player. Get over it.
Murray will net some Most Improved Player votes, although he won’t win. Gary Harris is steadily approaching fringe stardom. Will Barton is averaging 17.7 points and 4.0 assists while slashing 47.7/37.5/87.8 since the All-Star break. Mason Plumlee can play next to Jokic. Torrey Craig is a defensive gnat.
Regardless of how this year ends, Denver made progress. Plain and simple.
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Look no further than Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores’ thoughts on the future of coach-president Stan Van Gundy to encapsulate this team’s season.
“It’s about what happened this year, what we’re going to do and our future,” he said, per the Detroit News‘ Rod Beard. “Stan is a team player and we’re going to discuss it. We’re not winning enough, so we have to talk about that.”
Detroit will miss the playoffs for the third time in four years under Van Gundy, and it stumbles into the summer with zero financial flexibility and few trade assets. It isn’t difficult to make case for leadership changes in this instance. Coaches and executives don’t count against the cap. The Pistons could strip Van Gundy of his president duties or send him packing altogether merely because his status is one of the few things they have the power to change.
Dealing for Blake Griffin at the end of January seems like a fireable—or at least role-changeable—offense. It reeked of Van Gundy trying to save his job by way of a postseason appearance, long-term outlook be damned. Detroit is instead headed for an early vacation…without a first-round pick to show for it (barring a draft-lottery miracle).
True to the indecipherable delicacy of this situation, Griffin’s arrival is also a stability aide for Van Gundy. Gores presumably wouldn’t give him the autonomy to take on the final four years and $142.3 million of that contract if the plan isn’t to bring him back in some capacity.
Midseason additions of this magnitude don’t always pan out right away. Superstar integration takes a training camp. And the Pistons didn’t have Reggie Jackson for most of this impromptu experiment. He didn’t return from a right ankle injury until March 20, and Griffin left the rotation with his own ankle issues shortly thereafter.
These two have played just 47 minutes together—and only 44 with Andre Drummond. That matters. It doesn’t explain a team light on perimeter flamethrowers failing to carve out a consistent role for Luke Kennard before March, or overshadow Stanley Johnson’s flimsy offensive ceiling, or excuse the relative shortsightedness of the Griffin blockbuster.
But in the context of Van Gundy’s job security and the hope that Detroit might not be screwed indefinitely, it matters.
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It wouldn’t take much to defend a lower grade for the Warriors.
Houston has displaced them from the top of the Western Conference. Their defense, while eighth in points allowed per 100 possessions, has not been all that interested in warding off fast-break opportunities after missed shots, according to Cleaning The Glass.
Both Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala are shooting below 31 percent from three-point range. Sticking Green at the 5 is no longer an auto-win cheat code. The Warriors are notching what would be a league-worst defensive rating in the 700 possessions he’s soaked up at center, per Cleaning The Glass.
Something about Golden State feels off, perhaps vulnerable. Late-season injury infestations are beyond its control, but losing Stephen Curry through the first round of the playoffs wouldn’t have felt so dire last year. Even Kevin Durant‘s level-headed candor doesn’t sit right.
“It’s cool that people [looked] at us like we’re invincible, but we’re not, and you see it with the injuries that we have,” he told USA Today‘s Sam Amick. ”We’re not superhuman. I think when we play basketball the right way, we’re damn good. But if we don’t come out there and focus, we can lose to anybody, and you’ve seen that.”
Counting on the Warriors to flip a switch during the postseason cannot be the basis for their entire grade. They’ve been in cruise control for most of this year, breaking out their best basketball and peak interest only on occasion.
You know what? That’s fine.
The Warriors’ seesawing effort and execution will draw the ire of head coach Steve Kerr every now and then, as it should. But they’re carrying themselves like a team working off three straight NBA Finals appearances with an eye on a fourth. They’re comfortable enough in their identity and their place on the Association’s totem pole to prioritize self-preservation at the expense of regular-season accolades.
Recognizing that, as the Warriors seem to have done, and then still turning in almost 60 victories and a top-two net rating is pretty damn impressive.
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No team in the NBA has earned the right to be feared more than Houston. That includes Golden State.
Pretty much everything about the Rockets is terrifying. They’re 43-3 in games where Clint Capela, James Harden and Chris Paul take the floor together. The Harden-Paul partnership is a force of nature rather than an unnatural being forced to coexist.
Houston’s top-rated offense is spectacular, yet it didn’t come as a major surprise. Its sixth-place defense, meanwhile, is the foundation for general manager Daryl Morey’s Executive of the Year case. Luc Mbah a Moute and PJ Tucker have allowed the team to move Harden around in ways it couldn’t before.
Even the Rockets’ possible red flags come with the caveat they could be strengths.
Heavy reliance on isolation is often interpreted as a pitfall, but Harden and Paul are the league’s two most efficient high-volume island scorers. And Houston averages about as many points per one-on-one possession (1.13) as it does overall.
Head coach Mike D’Antoni has not leaned on all-wing lineups en masse. The Rockets’ most-used no-big combination has played under 60 possessions, per Cleaning The Glass. That doesn’t seem ideal when these pocket-sized mishmashes are a huge reason why they’re seen as Warriors-proof.
But the Rockets have a net rating north of 30, through 341 possessions, whenever Tucker lines up in the middle. Who cares about the sample size when the results are that ridiculous? They’ll have the switchability to steamroll the cream of the crop so long as Mbah a Moute’s dislocated shoulder heals in a timely fashion.
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Name a team that has exceeded expectations more than the post-Paul George Pacers.
Go ahead. I’ll wait. And feel free to bounce arounds some rebuttals. This is a safe space…for them to be chopped down.
How about the Celtics after losing Gordon Hayward and then Kyrie Irving? Al Horford would like a word. As would Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry graduate Brad Stevens.
What about the Utah Jazz after also losing Hayward, plus George Hill, and beginning the season 19-28 while turning the offense over to a rookie and coping with Rudy Gobert’s left knee injury? Close, but no cigar. Plenty had the Jazz ticketed for postseason contention to begin with, Gobert is a legit star and head coach Quin Snyder boasts a brilliant offensive mind.
Then surely the Raptors, owners of the NBA’s second-best record? Ah, yes. I forgot DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry were scrubs.
The Portland Trail Blazers? Apply everything written about the Raptors here while subbing in Damian Lillard‘s and CJ McCollum’s names.
Er, um, the fully Processed Philadelphia 76ers? Nice try, Joel.
Indiana is in a shock-and-awe class all its own. No one saw Victor Oladipo as a Most Improved Player lock, let alone an All-Star and potential All-NBA candidate. Average his ranks in NBA Math’s total points added, ESPN’s real plus-minus and value over replacement player, and he grades out as a top-12 talent.
Piggybacking off his rising star has allowed the Pacers to maintain a stellar offense on shaky shot selection and scrappy defense. They’re first in points allowed per 100 possessions during crunch time, to go along with a net rating that trails only the Cavaliers and Rockets.
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Finishing above .500 and on the Western Conference’s postseason peripherals is quite the accomplishment for the Clippers.
It verges on a miracle under the circumstances.
No team battled through more total roster turnover between last season and now than the Clippers. Wesley Johnson, DeAndre Jordan and Austin Rivers are the sole remaining members from the 2016-17 squad. And the Clippers of today aren’t a billboard for good health. They’ve burned through 36 starting lineups and don’t have a single five-man unit that eclipsed 175 minutes of total action.
Some of this shuffling is by design—even welcomed. The Clippers did well to get out from under Blake Griffin’s contract. Their bottom line is leaner, and they could have boatloads of cap space in 2019.
At least with Griffin, though, they were committing to something: a treadmill of mediocrity, at best, but a direction all the same. They don’t have that now.
Signing 31-year-old Lou Williams to a three-year, $24 million extension doesn’t offer any real insight into their plans. The final season of that deal is non-guaranteed. He can be moved in a heartbeat when his restriction lifts in early August.
Running it back will be tempting largely because of him. He’s putting a bow on the best season of his career. James Harden, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James and Damian Lillard are the only players matching his usage, assist rate and true shooting percentage.
But the Clippers have to ask themselves: What’s the cap on a team with Lou Williams as its best player? Is it worth re-signing a soon-to-be 30-year-old DeAndre Jordan, provided he declines his player option for next season? How about Avery Bradley? And if they re-sign one or both of them, are they obligated to shell out big-time money for Tobias Harris in 2019?
If the Clippers aren’t careful this summer, they could end up back where they started: strapped for cash and struggling to grind out low-seeded playoff cameos. They’ve given themselves a procedural escape from the financial prison Griffin’s pact left them in, but they still don’t have the picks and prospects to jump-start a full-fledged do-over.
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For a franchise so clearly vested in other teams’ players, the Lakers exit 2017-18 sitting pretty, with an assortment of options and freshly baked leverage at their disposal.
Poaching a superstar or two in free agency would be nice, and the Lakers have the wiggle room to complete a coup. They will sleepwalk their way to one max slot and can dredge up a second one by trading or stretching Luol Deng.
Again whiffing in free agency might seem like the end of the world given all of the stock they’ve placed in cap space. It took trading D’Angelo Russell to wash off Timofey Mozgov’s money last summer, and they flipped Jordan Clarkson to Cleveland at the trade deadline, albeit for a good value.
That free-agency-or-bust version of the Lakers is gone. Or at least, it should be.
They’re over .500 with a better net rating than the Minnesota Timberwolves since LaVar Ball went nuclear on head coach Luke Walton. Their youth is no longer a collective placeholder or salary-dumping sweetener. They have an actual infrastructure on their hands. They don’t need to land one or both of Paul George and LeBron James to start building toward something special.
Julius Randle epitomizes this shift in tenor more than anyone. After he first shifted from trade bait to unavoidable collateral damage, Lakers fans are now trying to squeeze him into cap projections without mucking up their team’s spending power. And he isn’t alone.
Surrendering any one of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart or Kyle Kuzma in a hypothetical Deng trade almost seems like too steep of a price these days. The Lakers would do it to reel in two established stars, but the idea of them second-guessing the steps required to actualize their pipe dream once seemed laughable.
It doesn’t anymore.
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Faulting the Memphis Grizzlies for their free fall out of the Western Conference playoff bubble alone is unfair. They were besieged by injuries long before they set their tank into motion.
Soldiering on without Mike Conley alone would have knocked them outside the postseason clique. But they also dealt with early-season curveballs from JaMychal Green, Ben McLemore and Wayne Selden. And let’s not forget, they started off the year as a charming surprise, with a bench deeper than initially advertised.
Whether a second unit headlined by Chandler Parsons warranted any sort of faith is an entirely different issue. (He’ll wrap 2017-18 with just 36 appearances after he recently received orthobiologic injections in both of his knees.) Getting caught up in the onset hype is forgivable. Failing to properly react when it all comes crumbling down is not.
Holding onto Tyreke Evans past the trade deadline remains the most egregious decision, although firing head coach David Fizdale fewer than 20 games into the season comes fairly close. The Grizzlies don’t own Evans’ Bird rights and have no path to impactful cap space. Re-signing him will take most or all of their mid-level exception.
This presumes Evans wants to stick around. He might not. And if he does, the Grizzlies will have exhausted their best—perhaps only—means of improvement on status-quo upkeep.
Talking yourself into an insta-turnaround isn’t blasphemous. The Grizzlies could enter next year with a top-three draft pick, a healthy Conley and Marc Gasol, Evans and surprise standout Dillon Brooks. That may vault them back into the playoff fray.
Counterpoint: It may not. The Grizzlies were on the fringes of the West’s postseason ranks before imploding, and they won’t have the cap space necessary to make consequential additions until 2020 at the earliest.
Nor does it bode well for them that this year’s ninth-place outfit will have 46 victories. A core founded upon Conley and Gasol doesn’t guarantee that many wins. The Grizzlies needed to steer into some iteration of a reset, but they didn’t. For that, they fail.
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So, what did shelling out $162 million over four years this past summer to James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk and Dion Waiters ultimately buy the Miami Heat?
A few extra victories, a playoff berth and a moody Hassan Whiteside.
Take this (uninventive) snark with a side-helping of “Well, actually…” The Heat are not a colossal letdown. Visions of them mirroring last year’s 40-11 finish across an entire season were always recency-bias drunk, and they have more than few gems.
Josh Richardson is a defensive bloodhound, with a standstill outside stroke to boot. Just three other guards in NBA history have ever registered steal and block rates north of two while canning more than 37.5 percent of their triples.
Justise Winslow is, well, playable! And in a big way. He’s shooting almost 40 percent from downtown since the start of December, on more than two attempts per game. Keeping him on the floor no longer demands as many concessions. He might make defenses pay should they give him the Andre Roberson-esque “you have cooties” treatment in the playoffs.
Bam Adeabayo was a draft-day find. He’s pesky when defending in space and has more assists this season than Whiteside dropped through the first five years of his career…combined (93). Both he and Olynyk—12.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 50.7 percent shooting since Feb. 1—are party-crashing Whiteside’s spot in the rotation.
Stir in a bit of head coach Erik Spoelstra, and the Heat are a team nobody wants to meet in the playoffs. They may not win a series, and their offense stalls too much in half-court sets, but opponents will feel every best-of-seven outing.
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And the NBA’s most disappointing team of the 2017-18 season is: The Milwaukee Bucks!
Call this unfair if you must. Preseason expectations may have oversold the Bucks. Then-head coach Jason Kidd wasn’t suddenly going to ditch his widely debated defensive principles, and about-facing to Joe Prunty in January never put them on the fast track to becoming the post-Mark Jackson era Warriors.
Besides, you know, bright spots!
Giannis Antetokounmpo isn’t taking home this year’s MVP award, but he’s solidified his place among the NBA’s top 10 superstars, if not top five. Sterling Brown looks like a rotation player. Jabari Parker is back. Khris Middleton is still better than people outside of Milwaukee realize. The Eric Bledsoe trade was mostly worthwhile.
Most critically, the Bucks’ six most-used lineups are each outscoring opponents by more than six points per 100 possessions—akin to a top-five net rating. The general shallowness that plagues their rotation now won’t be as much of an issue in the postseason. Top-heavy teams can work when playing time gets pared down across the board.
But the Bucks’ minutes without Antetokounmpo remain a cause for alarm. Bledsoe, Middleton and Parker should arm them with the weapons to tread water while he catches a breather. That hasn’t meant much thus far.
Take a gander as the net ratings of their five most-played combinations that don’t feature Antetokounmpo, courtesy of Cleaning The Glass:
- Bledsoe, Middleton, Parker, John Henson, Tony Snell (171 possessions): minus-5.9
- Bledsoe, Snell, Middleton, Henson, Malcolm Brogdon (87 possessions): minus-23.0
- Bledsoe, Brown, Henson, Middleton, Snell: minus-13.5
- Bledsoe, Brodgon, Middleton, DeAndre Liggins (now with New Orleans), Thon Maker (66 possessions): minus-24.5
- Brown, Maker, Middleton, Snell, Matthew Dellavedova (59 possessions): minus-5.1
Holding the Bucks to 50-win projections and quasi-contention was always somewhat steep. Expecting them to find more of an identity beyond Antetokounmpo was not.
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Feel free to adjust the Timberwolves’ grade as you see fit based on the outcome of their No. 8 Seed Bowl with the Nuggets on Wednesday. It shouldn’t change much.
Creeping past 45 wins is a huge accomplishment for a franchise that hasn’t finished above .500 since 2004-05. And these Timberwolves weren’t supposed to be here at all, scrapping and clawing for the rights to get bounced by the Rockets in the first round.
Jimmy Butler’s meniscus injury changed everything for them. They were 11 games over .500, tracking toward around 49 or 50 victories, with a top-seven point differential per 100 possessions before he went down. Their 8-9 showing without him put them in this predicament.
That doesn’t give them a total pass. Losing him wasn’t their only problem.
The Timberwolves are 23rd in overall defensive efficiency, and they guard like the league’s worst team when Butler is off the floor. Andrew Wiggins’ efficiency has declined in a smaller-volume role. Most damningly: Coach-president Tom Thibodeau hasn’t seen the light. He uses his starters as a crutch, grinding them tooth and nail.
Minnesota’s opening five has logged more court time than any other lineup. And that’s with Butler missing more than 20 games. No team turns to its bench less, and at least one of the starters has noticed.
“Guys get tired. I think they need opportunities,” Jeff Teague said of the backups after a March 26 loss to Memphis, per The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski. “… Hopefully Thibs sees that they can really help.”
Make the playoffs. Don’t make the playoffs. Whatever. This Timberwolves season isn’t a colossal letdown—it’s just one that has been overblown at times and could’ve used some more innovative coaching.
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DeMarcus Cousins‘ season-ending Achilles injury could have ended the New Orleans Pelicans’ playoff hopes. It didn’t. They’re heading to the postseason for the second time in Anthony Davis’ career.
Not only that, but the Pelicans have improved by many measures since losing Cousins. They were outscoring opponents by 1.4 points per 100 possessions and playing at a 46-win pace prior to his injury. They’re a plus-2.5 and are working on a 50-win track since.
Say it with me, loudly enough for all of the people in the back: Cousins was not ruining the Pelicans. Their offense has suffered in his absence, and the learning curve between he and Davis hasn’t yet expired.
Rather than turn this into a referendum on Cousins’ value to the team, take the opportunity to acknowledge the job done by New Orleans’ coaching staff in response to its midseason tilt-a-whirl. Alvin Gentry and crew have adapted magnificently on the fly, as Bourbon Street Shots’ Kumar wrote:
“Anytime you lose a piece like DeMarcus Cousins, it is incredibly difficult to reposition yourself. Your rotations are thrown off, your chemistry is mangled and your playbook goes out the window. But the coaching staff adjusted. They changed the offense from the big-centric actions to a whirlwind of cutting and screening. The Pelicans have morphed into a pick-and-roll-heavy attack and are finding more and more wrinkles to throw at opponents.”
Playing at an elevated speed has helped the Pelicans catch opponents off-guard, even as the offense sputters. They lead the league in possessions used per 48 minutes without Cousins, and they have more players testing their mettle off the dribble.
Davis, Jrue Holiday and—deep breath—Rajon Rondo have all been good (Rondo) to great (Holiday) to alien (Davis). Darius Miller has unveiled some off-the-bounce pizzazz. E’Twaun Moore hasn’t let his outsized defensive assignments derail his touch at the other end; he’s nailing 42.3 percent of his threes over this most recent stretch. Emeka Okafor is getting actual run. Cheick Diallo is frisky.
New Orleans has earned this letter-grade high-five.
20 of 30
What happens when it takes a torn ACL to your most important player for you to prioritize development over chasing a No. 10 seed? This.
Kristaps Porzingis’ season-ending injury shouldn’t have been what the Knicks needed to embrace the league-wide tankathon, or to start giving rookie Frank Ntilikina serious minutes. It became apparent their not-crappy start to the year was a mirage around late November, maybe early December. They should have reset their compass right around then.
Finally conceding to the inevitable didn’t even look good on the Knicks. Trey Burke has been an offensive dream—a real keeper. But Ntilikina has been typecast into a weird off-guard role. And while that doesn’t negatively impact his defensive ceiling, it inherently limits his offensive reps. He ranks 12th on the team in usage rate (!) since Porzingis’ injury.
Underdeveloping—and underappreciating—Ntilikina isn’t even the worst of the Knicks’ baggage. They must now be trusted to act responsibly over the summer. Ergo, what will they do with the immovable two years and $37.8 million left on Joakim Noah‘s deal? Eat it for at least one more season? Waive him and stretch it over the next half-decade?
Head coach Jeff Hornacek offered some inadvertent comfort on this front when talking about a potential extension for Porzingis, per ESPN.com’s Ian Begley: ”We’re in a good position maybe not for next year, but the year after when somebody like KP, who’s up for the extension, that’s when you can go over the cap and get a free agent in there and still have him.”
Assuming Hornacek isn’t on the brink of being fired and has a firm grasp on New York’s long-haul plans, this wait-and-see approach with Porzingis suggests the Knicks won’t try to accelerate their position over the offseason. Holding off on his extension to work with a more manageable cap hold in 2019 makes the most sense if they aren’t already paying Noah in $7.6 million in dead money.
21 of 30
The Thunder are weird.
They just barely clinched a playoff berth in the 11th hour. But they have a better point differential outside of garbage time than the third-place Blazers, according to Cleaning The Glass.
They have a losing record (17-19) through games in which neither side trails by more than three points entering the final three minutes. But they have the West’s third-best record against teams above .500.
But…but…but…yeah, let’s stop. This is exhausting.
Oklahoma City is an enigma wrapped in a 40-part riddle, caked in perpetual inconsistency, sandwiched somewhere between the potential to flame out in the first round and thwart a Rockets-Warriors Western Conference Finals showdown.
Handing out a B feels right. And wrong. And everything in between. All at once.
22 of 30
Piling on the Orlando Magic with an unflattering grade isn’t fun. They have enough problems. Silver-tonguing our way through their issues would add insult to injury, so we’ll lay them out straight.
Aaron Gordon is about to cost a whole bunch of money despite being a wild-card anchor. His own defensive value is predicated on having the right frontcourt partner, and he hasn’t proved to be No. 1 material on offense. He shoots under 40 percent on drives and is under 30 percent on pull-up jumpers.
Orlando doesn’t have anywhere else to turn for a potential cornerstone—other than this year’s first-round pick.
Though rookie Jonathan Isaac missed most of the season with ankle issues, he projects as an intriguing fit next to Gordon up front. The Magic sold low on Elfrid Payton at the trade deadline, sending him to the Phoenix Suns for a second-round pick. They declined the fourth-year team option on Mario Hezonja, which enables him to depart this summer as an unrestricted free agent.
Additional injuries haven’t helped the Magic’s situation. Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross, Nikola Vucevic and Gordon each missed considerable time. They won’t have any cap space this summer if they retain Gordon, and the new regime didn’t inherit many movable contracts from the previous one.
That complicates this evaluation process. This Magic front office isn’t at fault for most of what ails the team. But it did make the decisions to distance itself from holdovers like Hezonja and Payton without securing any real value in return.
Isaac’s development, Gordon’s restricted free agency, this year’s pick and offseason personnel will carry more clout than anything that has happened to date. In the meantime, the Magic’s rash of bad injuries and inability to move the needle in an encouraging direction cancel each other out.
23 of 30
“After this game, I kind of have a new goal,” Joel Embiid told reporters after a March 22 victory over the Magic. “I want to get to 50 wins.”
His wish has come true. And then some.
Philadelphia has leapfrogged the 50-win benchmark amid a 15-game winning streak—nearly half of which has unfolded without The Process, who remains sidelined after having surgery to repair an orbital fracture around his left eye.
So much can be said about the Sixers’ season, and how they’ve annihilated expectations. Too much. The defense, Ben Simmons’ Rookie of the Year exploits, the improved spacing, the impactful midseason additions, overcoming Markelle Fultz’s 68-game absence, Embiid himself—it all factors into their stunning play for the East’s No. 3 seed.
But the most important, most convincing facet, of the Sixers’ meteoric rise? That would be their improving body of work without Embiid, their supposed lifeline. Take a look at how their net rating has progressed when he’s not on the court:
- October (seven games): -15.4
- November (14 games): -1.1
- December (15 games): -7.7
- January (12 games): -2.9
- February (11 games): -3.0
- March (16 games): 4.6
- April (six games): 13.2
Simmons specifically has grown more comfortable headlining his own units. Philly is outpacing opponents by 6.9 points per 100 possessions in the time he’s played without Embiid since Jan. 1 and is now a net plus when he runs solo for the entire season.
Don’t prematurely write off the Sixers entering the postseason. They have the juice, it seems, to steal a first-round series without Embiid. Picture saying that six months ago.
24 of 30
Congratulations to the Suns for locking up the NBA’s worst offensive rating, defensive rating, net rating and record. Also: Congratulations to them for the top draft-lottery odds that come with all of that.
And finally: Congratulations to them for avoiding the big, fat, fire-breathing “F” that originally awaited them ’round these parts. Many of their younglings pieced together that much progress while they sat everyone under the—sorry—sun. As The Ringer’s Zach Kram wrote:
“Marquese Chriss has scored in double-digits in nine of his last 10 games and tallied three of his eight career double-doubles just in the last month. Josh Jackson has boosted his scoring output to 18.7 points per game since the All-Star break, second among rookies in that span, and seen his usage rate jump to Donovan Mitchell and Dennis Smith Jr.’s range. Dragan Bender is playing more, and even though his shooting numbers are drifting the wrong way, he’s showing increasing glimpses of the kind of multidimensional, floor-warping big he could become at his peak.
“In a sense, then, the Suns have reaped the two main benefits of tanking over the past two months: They’ve given their youth more NBA exposure and offered them freer rein, and they’ve still managed to lose nearly every game they’ve played, thus positioning themselves for the best possible chance to acquire another impact player.”
At some point, though, the Suns need to strive for more than a tank job on balance. They have a player ready to win now in Devin Booker, who missed their final 12 games with a right hand injury. His efficiency and assist rate have increased right along with his volume through each of his first three seasons.
Booker joins LeBron James and Dwyane Wade as the only players ever to clear a usage rate of 30 while posting an assist percentage above 24 and true shooting percentage better than 56 before their fourth year. And the Suns, for all of their late-season standouts, don’t yet know whether they have or are on the verge of getting a co-conspirator worthy of his prime.
That’s problematic, to say the least, as they’re starting to reinvest in the core. TJ Warren’s four-year, $50 million extension will kick in next season, and Booker himself likely will be making max money by 2019-20. The Suns skillfully juggled an effective tank with the appearance of grooming their youth, but that schtick is getting old.
25 of 30
The Blazers’ season is far closer to a fairy tale than an underachievement or accepted forecast. They’re vying for a top-three playoff seed in a brutal Western Conference without undergoing any wholesale changes.
Damian Lillard has played out of his mind. His true shooting percentage has never been higher. He’s posting the second-highest assist rate of his career. He’s playing some of his best defense ever. Injuries to Stephen Curry and Chris Paul (earlier in the season) have given him a legitimate All-NBA first-team case.
Plenty of others around him are showing out as well. Jusuf Nurkic is at home in head coach Terry Stotts’ defensive system. CJ McCollum remains a smooth operator. Al-Farouq Aminu unlocks so many different lineup arrangements at both ends.
Evan Turner—Evan Turner—is shooting 38.6 percent from beyond the arc on 1.8 attempts over his last 50 games. Zach Collins and Ed Davis need to film a buddy cop movie that weaves in recurring nods to Portland’s point differential when they play together. Maurice Harkless (left knee surgery) is missed.
Fist bumps and bromantic hugs all around. The Blazers deserve it. But they’ve also been an acid trip—uncomfortably prone to swings in every direction. Just look at how their net rating has fluctuated by month:
- October (seven games): 8.6
- November (15 games): 0.4
- December (13 games): minus-5.1
- January (16 games): 3.7
- February (10 games): 0.3
- March (15 games): 7.2
- April (five games): minus-4.1
Anyone crossing their fingers for the Blazers to have an outside shot at an “A” of any kind should use this for reference. Ditto for the four-game losing streak they’ll cart into the final game of the season.
26 of 30
Take the Suns, melt in a genuine urgency to tank, and you get the Kings.
Which is unfortunate for the Kings.
Their 2019 first-round pick is likely headed to Boston by way of Philadelphia. By 2020, the draft-lottery format will be one year deep into its reformation, and Sacramento will be forced to pore over Willie Cauley-Stein’s restricted free agency and extension eligibility from Buddy Hield and Skal Labissiere.
Ipso facto: The Kings needed to tank this season, when they both control their own first-rounder and aren’t staring at potential reinvestments. But they didn’t bottom out. Not soon enough, anyway.
Top-five lottery odds are out of reach, and they’ve engaged in some sort of awkward, half-baked pledge to youthful fliers. And it has almost nothing to do with the veterans, both incumbent and those signed last summer, on the docket. As Sactown Royalty’s Greg Wissinger wrote:
“When this criticism has come up in the post game threads, I’ve often asked what else people would have the Kings do. I’m not in favor of pulling your core in close games. But why are games getting close at all? Why are the Kings playing Fox 25-30 minutes when he’s clearly hit the wall? Why is Bruno Caboclo only averaging 10 minutes a game? Why didn’t he play at all against the Grizzlies [on April 6]?
“I don’t know if there’s a perfect way to balance development and tanking, but it’s clear the Kings have erred on the side of development, and I do mean erred. I’ve defended this team and it’s management and it’s coaching for most of the year. But staring down the end of the year and seeing where the Kings rank in the lottery, it’s clear that they’ve blown it.”
Giving up on Malachi Richardson and waiving Georgios Papagiannis to facilitate their trade-deadline activity plays into this, too. The Kings could easily be awarded a D or worse.
Color me a sucker for their top-10 net rating in crunch time. And for Fox putting up a higher true shooting percentage than Lonzo Ball, Markelle Fultz, Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr. And for fellow rookie Bogdan Bogdanovic splashing in nearly 40 percent of his pull-up threes.
27 of 30
Imagine trying to spin the San Antonio Spurs’ 2017-18 crusade as a disappointment just because they failed to tally 50 wins or its equivalent for the first time in two decades.
Kawhi Leonard has appeared in nine games this season. Nine. The Spurs have essentially schlepped through the entire year without a top-five star who emerged as an all-everything offensive savior in 2016-17. It should come as no surprise their 50-win dynasty met its maker.
Newsflash, though: The Spurs are still sniffing around that territory.
And they have the NBA’s fourth-best defense.
And Dejounte Murray leads all point guards in ESPN’s Defensive Real-Plus Minus.
And Kyle Anderson is second among small forwards.
And their highest-usage lineup is pummeling opponents by more than 15 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning The Glass.
And Manu Ginobili is ageless.
Make no bones about it: The Spurs aren’t the Spurs without Kawhi Leonard. But they’re oh-so close.
28 of 30
With the exception of an oddball two-week stretch at the end of March that spilled into April, the Raptors look and feel and play and carry themselves like a different team.
DeMar DeRozan’s efficiency from behind the rainbow is overstated. He’s shooting 31.2 percent from deep. But he’s never attempted more threes, and his decision-making out of the pick-and-roll is at an all-time high, rendering both him and Toronto far less predictable.
Almost 36 percent of Kyle Lowry’s field-goal attempts are coming as spot-up threes, compared to under 23 percent last season. The Raptors are shooting more treys in the aggregate. They’ve gone from 20th in long-ball frequency all the way up to fourth. They could stand to convert a few more of those triplets, but they make up for it by playing with extra pace and placing additional value in fast-break possessions.
Toronto’s second-most used lineup overall is an all-bench mob that dismantles opponents by close to 19 points per 100 possessions. Fred VanVleet regularly closes games beside DeRozan and Lowry, while sophomores Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam are integral to the frontcourt’s defensive coverages.
So, too, is rookie OG Anunoby. He took over for Norman Powell (hip injury) in the starting lineup midway through November, began chasing around some of the toughest wing assignments alive and never gave the spot back.
And the Raptors have never looked back.
Their season will be defined by how they fare in the playoffs—by how close they are to dethroning the Cavaliers and reaching the NBA Finals. But their regular-season work and reinvention must not be downplayed. They didn’t cobble together the league’s second-best record by accident—or in a way anyone saw coming.
29 of 30
Gordon Hayward, the Jazz’s leading scorer, left for Boston over the summer. George Hill, their top assist man, ended up in Sacramento.
Jump ahead to Jan. 22, and Utah is 19-28, five games outside the West’s playoff bubble. Rudy Gobert is in the early stages of his return from a protracted stint on the sidelines (15 games), his second of the season. Ricky Rubio is unplayable.
Fast forward to now, and Rodney Hood is also gone. Donovan Mitchell, a rookie, paces all rotation players in usage rate. One Western Conference team will finish with 46 victories and miss the postseason.
It isn’t Utah.
The Jazz have already sewn up a playoff bid and are jockeying for a top-three seed. They have overthrown the Celtics’ league-lording defense and own the NBA’s best point differential per 100 possessions since Gobert’s last return—a stretch spanning nearly half the gosh darn season (37 games).
Winning a best-of-seven series will be a chore for this squad. The Jazz want for a proven face-up, from-scratch weapon, even with Mitchell scoring well enough for people to try discrediting Ben Simmons’ rookie designation. They could fall in the first round, as a potential favorite.
Or they could keep chugging along, all the way into the second round, outperforming their expected ceiling and disproving convention—just like they’ve done for most of this year.
30 of 30
John Wall missing half the season with left knee problems must be mentioned as part of any Washington Wizards takedown. They are better with him and wouldn’t be looking for help to escape the East’s No. 8 seed if he played out the entire schedule.
Or would they?
The Wizards fail to place in the top 10 of either offensive or defensive efficiency. Wall’s absence is a part of that. They score at a top top-seven rate when he’s in the game, but their shot profile is bizarre. They rank third in long-mid-range frequency (fifth in accuracy) and 22nd in three-point-attempt rate, according to Cleaning The Glass.
Washington’s crunch-time offense is straight-up bad. Only the Hornets, Grizzlies, Mavericks and Knicks pump in fewer points per 100 possessions. Wall’s injury isn’t a shield against those bottom-five credentials, as he’s shooting under 35 percent in the clutch.
No, the Wizards aren’t wholly uninspiring. They should be a tough out in the playoffs.
They have bench contributors who’ve shown they can score. Otto Porter remains a deadly spot-up shooter. Bradley Beal can ferry more responsibility on his own. Mike Scott is a revelation. Have faith in Kelly Oubre Jr. Their most important lineups, not unlike the Bucks’ situation, take care of business.
On the whole, though, the Wizards have underwhelmed. From tying the Heat for the most losses against sub-.500 opponents among Eastern Conference playoff teams to a defense heavy on disappearing acts, they don’t project as the threat they’re supposed to be.
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