Real Deal Basketball Report: The Finals

NBA FINALS

INDIANA VS GOLDEN STATE

A rematch? Seriously?! BORING!
OK, maybe not that boring. The Warriors won comfortably last year against a 7 seed that went on a run to the finals. But this year’s Pacers are different and this is shaping up to be a really great matchup. We’ve got Steph vs. Westbrook!
Seriously, I don’t really know how anybody else is supposed to win the title for the next three years. If Westbrook keeps getting the greenest light, the longest leash, the highest usage of all time and total compliance from his teammates to pad his stats (see below), there’s no stopping Indiana for the foreseeable future. Blake Griffin. Rudy Gobert. Paul George. Seriously, Paul freaking George is this team’s fourth best player. They’ve been on a tear since the big trades. And Indy still has a lottery pick. Ugh.

But anyway. Let’s do something I did two years ago in the finals when it was too close to call and break down the individual matchups.
POINT GUARD: Steph Curry vs. Dennis Schroeder. Curry takes this one. Two-time MVP. Been on fire with KD out.
SHOOTING GUARD: Klay Thompson vs. Gary Harris. No contest. I love Harris’ game and how he’s developed this year but Thompson is just better and somehow manages to score 20 points a game even when he plays like trash.
GUARD: JJ Barea vs. Russell Westbrook. Moving right along.
SMALL FORWARD: Khris Middleton vs. Paul George. This one is actually interesting. George would be the obvious pick here, but Middleton has been terrific since coming back from injury and especially lately. PG13’s production is just overall better, though, so he gets the nod here.
POWER FORWARD: Myles Turner vs. Blake Griffin. Both great players. But we all know it’s Griffin.
FORWARD: Andre Iguodala vs. David Lee. Two very different players, but Lee is a bit player in San Antonio and Iggy is filling in for Kevin Durant. Advantage Iggy.
CENTER: Brook Lopez vs. Rudy Gobert. Lopez has been really good this season, starring as The Only Player On Rhe Nets Who Can Play Basketball, but Rudy Gobert’s ascension this season especially has been monumental. The guy’s a monster. Advantage Indy.
FLEX: Bojan Bogdanovic vs. David Nwaba. Yikes. David Who?
So that gives each team four advantages a piece. Buuuuuut Westbrook is playing four games this week. That’s a bonus 75 points right there, and that’s probably enough to give INDIANA the win and its first Real Deal NBA championship. Congrats to the two finalists.
Let me just take this moment to say again that I think this was our best year yet. Lots of intrigue this season, lots of action on the trade market and I think our participation was close to 100% this time. Thanks for a great year, everyone, and thanks for reading.

POST-MORTEMS

MIAMI

Miami did something we’ve never seen before and might not see again for a long time in taking down a #1 seed as the bottom seed in the playoffs. That’s awesome. But in round 2, they lost to the team that scored the second-worst point total by over 100 points. The Heat are a team that, each year, seems like they’re still fighting for a playoff position at the end of the season – but they’ve made it in consistently. We haven’t seen them take that next step, but at the same time, this is a team that finished 20 games above .500 this season. It’s a good team. The path to greatness isn’t particularly difficult to see. There are only two contracts on the roster worth more than $7.5 million a year, Chris Bosh and Joakim Noah, and they’re both amnesty candidates, opening up even more cap room. Miami has both of its first round picks over the next two seasons, and most of its important players are either still quite young (Harrison Barnes, KCP, Jonas Valanciunas) or still in their prime (Goran Dragic, Marcus Morris). As presently constituted, this is a pretty run-of-the-mill low-seed playoff team. But things in the East are shifting. Atlanta is not as infallible as previously perceived. Chicago is facing tough contract/cap situations (more on that later). With some smart moves, Miami can easily pass the likes of Milwaukee, Cleveland and Toronto and pull even with a team like Charlotte. The path is there, even if it’s a bit shrouded.
Expiring contracts: Marcus Morris, Austin Rivers, Brandan Wright, Raul Neto
Picks: #23

CHICAGO

This team is going to have major cap trouble next year, even after jettisoning the Jordan Clarkson contract. Whiteside is still on the books at $46.5 million for one more year, eating up nearly half of the cap, and the Bulls will owe costly extensions to Wiggins and Gordon if they want to keep them. Still, this is a team that is still built to win now. Assuming the Bulls find a way to keep at least Wiggins and Gordon, they should be a top three team in the East again next year. Having Durant out for the playoffs was a massive blow, and I wonder how things would have played out if he were in the lineup. With Indiana’s resurgence, Chicago has won its last division title for a while, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still an elite team. Whiteside, however expensive, is still terrific. Ricky Rubio looks amazing under Thibs. Even Derrick Rose was a fairly reliable contributor (as long as you weren’t actually watching the games), and youngsters like Tobias Harris (yeah, he’s still only 24 somehow) can continue to grow. The most interesting thing about Chicago for me this offseason – besides the contract situations – is what they do with Lance Stephenson and Chandler Parsons. Do the Bulls hold onto them and hope they bounce back? Or do they trade them to another team that thinks they will?
Expiring contracts: Andrew Wiggins, Aaron Gordon, Tony Snell, Alex Len, Reggie Williams
Picks: #24

SAN ANTONIO

With all of the injuries they had this year, the Spurs were kind of like the West’s version of the Cavs (three stars and little help elsewhere), except they’re way more sustainable and projectable. Despite scoring the most points during the regular season, this team really begins and ends with the big three of Kawhi Leonard, Karl Towns and Andre Drummond. The Spurs had a mixed experience with good luck and bad this season. Wilson Chandler and Trevor Booker both had career years, but Jeremy Lin and Evan Turner missed big chunks of the season out injured. Kawhi looks like an MVP and KAT made the next step forward, but Drummond regressed. It’s really a shame everything didn’t click at the same time for this team, but at the same time it’s kind of hard to feel bad for them when they started things off with Kawhi and fell into the #1 pick, which happened to turn into a generational big man. Make no mistake: this team will be back with a vengeance next season. With no meaningful expiring contracts and healthy cap space, I’m expecting this team to do some minor re-tooling and remain a top 3 seed in the West.

Expiring contracts: Kosta Koufos, Tyler Ennis, Nicola Laprovittola
Picks: none

NEW ORLEANS

For a long time, the Pelicans were a sleeping giant. I complained about them constantly, pointing out all of the assets they had that they could be using to be a contender. After two mediocre years, the beast finally stirred as New Orleans claimed the West’s top seed. Finally, the team with Anthony Davis and Kyrie Irving made the freaking playoffs already. This has very much been a work in progress: over the past two seasons, star after star was brought in. LaMarcus Aldridge and Eric Bledsoe last year. Isaiah Thomas and Jrue Holiday this year. Joel Embiid became a living meme, but also a really good basketball player in the 12 minutes he played this season. MKG and Taj Gibson are terrific role players for this team. And Ben Simmons will play (lol, maybe) next season. The scariest part about this team? They’re still so freaking young. AD is 24. Kyrie just turned 25. Embiid just turned 23. Simmons will be 21 at the start of next season. Even Bledsoe and Thomas are still in their prime at 27 and 28, respectively. Like their rival Spurs, New Orleans fell victim to some poorly-timed injuries. They could have won it all this year. But they’ll be back next season.
Expiring contracts: Joel Embiid, Reggie Bullock
Picks: none

MILWAUKEE

The Bucks defied my expectations all year long. I ranked them as a borderline playoff team in my preseason rankings, but they were a good 5th seed and made it all the way to the conference finals. I’ve trashed this team’s strength of schedule enough; it’s time to give credit where credit is due. I did not expect Giannis to be this good this quickly. And the dude is still only 22. Elfrid Payton transformed from a can’t-shoot, can’t-actually-really-do-anything point guard into someone who has nearly averaged a triple double over the last month (?!?!?!?!?!). Serge Ibaka is still good, and so is Thad Young, kinda. Delon Wright looks legit. It’s a shame Lord Bob missed most of the playoffs – that guy is for real. Bebe Nogueira’s development has been encouraging. The Bucks will return with a solid core next season, but a lack of picks and fairly modest cap room will limit how much better this team can get. Ultimately, though, the sky’s the limit when you’ve got Giannis. This is a team to keep an eye on after an improbably, really fun to watch conference finals run. They were just no match for Indiana.
Expiring contracts: Elfird Payton, Solomon Hill, Semaj Christon, Treveon Graham, Michael Gbinije
Picks: none

PORTLAND

Hell of a year for the Blazers, due majorly in part to some majorly beneficial trades. This team went from selling off LaMarcus Aldridge for picks to reaching the conference finals. Well done. Utah was my pick to win the division before the season, and Portland started off by trading Porzingis for DeAndre Jordan, so my expectations weren’t extremely high for this team. The Blazers started off red hot, fell behind Utah for a stretch, and roared back at the end of the year to win the title and ride a hot streak to the finals. Damian Lillard has fallen out of favor a bit in some circles but was still dominant this season. Jimmy Butler was phenomenal and the Blazers will be keeping an eye on where he goes this summer. Jordan was an upgrade over Porzingis, at least for this year. I worried about this team’s depth at the start of the year, but now it’s one of the deeper squads in the league. Terrence Ross, Meyers Leonard and two picks turned into Pau Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki. Then Pau Gasol and a pick turned into Jae Crowder, Tim Hardaway and Pat Beverley. Portland is probably the team that improved the most over the course of the season (except Indiana), evidenced by their thrilling playoffs run. The Blazers won’t have to do much this offseason; they’ll come into next year with three 50 PPG players, a solid supporting cast and developing youngsters like Rodney Hood, Mo Harkless and Hardaway.
Expiring contracts: Rodney Hood, Nik Stauskas
Picks: #28

Conference Finals predictions and Post-Mortems for round 1 exits

CONFERENCE FINALS

EAST

2 INDIANA VS 5 MILWAUKEE

If you had told me at the start of the playoffs that the Bucks would be in the Conference Finals, I would have had a difficult time just adjusting to the humanity of that statement. But here we are. Milwaukee surprised me all throughout the season and twice now in the playoffs. I don’t want to say it’s been an easy road for the Bucks, but they’ve faced the teams that had the second-lowest (Toronto) and lowest (Miami) scores in rounds 1 and 2, respectively. They would have lost against any other team in the Conference Semifinals. Facing Indiana, the highest scoring team of round 1 and the second highest scoring team of round 2, will be a rude awakening to say the least. Elfrid Payton has been amazing lately, but Indiana’s starting PG is Russell Westbrook. Ibaka is another really good player, but Indiana has Blake Griffin at PF. Robert Covington has done some really impressive stuff in the past few weeks, but Indiana’s got Paul George on the wing. You see where I’m going with this. And I haven’t even mentioned Rudy Gobert and the 63 PPG he’s averaging over the past two weeks. The pick is INDIANA.

WEST

3 GOLDEN STATE VS 4 PORTLAND

The Warriors survive a late push from the Spurs to face a red hot Portland team that absolutely shalacked the top-seeded Pelicans. I am afraid to face the Blazers at this point. After their big end-of-season trade, this team has been nuts. They were four points away from cracking 1,000 in round 1 and beat the top seed by multiple hundreds of points. Pretty damn scary. Lillard, Butler and Jordan have all been playing great ball as of late and the boosts provided by new additions Jae Crowder, Tim Hardaway and Pat Beverley are making a big difference. Even Dirk is playing well! Golden State has looked really good, as well, obviously, taking down the Kings and Spurs. Everyone on this team that you would expect to play well has really done so. Iguodala and Plumlee were letdowns last week, but the Warriors do have options on the bench and can certainly tinker more than most teams left in the playoffs. I think how Golden State sets its lineup could be the deciding factor. These two teams have had really difficult paths to the Conference Finals and this week is going to be a true bloodbath. Whoever wins this matchup will truly deserve to win the title. Will it be a rematch of last year? Golden State vs. Indiana? Could be. But I’m picking PORTLAND to win.

POST-MORTEMS

PHOENIX

We all know where this team is going. Or do we? After a pretty dominant start to the season, things got a bit rickety as other teams in the West got better and the Suns stayed the same. Then the Westbrook trade happened and Phoenix’s fate was sealed. They would still make the playoffs – that much was clear – but whatever else happened for the remainder of the year was a writeoff. That theme rang true again when Isiah Thomas was traded. Now, the Suns have a crop of legitimate young talent (Kris Dunn stinks like abandoned turds and does not count as a member of this group). Nerlens Noel looks like the Mavs’ center of present and future. Jamal Murray has been coming along very nicely and Mudiay is toast. Parker and LaVine, the ACL twins, were great this season before being injured. I do have concerns about them. For Parker, it’s his second ACL tear in three seasons. Not pretty. And LaVine’s game relies so much on his explosion and athleticism. Does the injury change him? There are some decent role players on this team, too, like Swaggy P and Etwaun Moore. Do the Suns make it back to the playoffs next year? I really don’t think so. I’d pick Memphis or Dallas (or Denver if they get a new owner) to take their spot. But when it comes to rebuilding, there are certainly worse starting spots than what the Suns are currently working with.
Draft picks: None
Expiring contracts: Jabari Parker, Zach LaVine, Ed Davis, Leandro Barbosa, Marshall Plumlee

HOUSTON

Time may be running out for this team to put together a good squad around James Harden. The Rockets were the best team in the league two seasons ago, a decent playoff team last year and pretty damn mediocre this season. They would have missed the playoffs comfortably if they were in the East. Aside from Hardens’ MVP type season, this team was really nothing special. Trading Harrison Barnes was a questionable move, at least for the long term. Marvin Williams and Evan Fournier are fine for a short-term playoff run, but the former is at his peak and over 30 and the latter plays in Orlando, where his role can change completely at any given second. Barnes is the type of player this team should be looking to keep: young, controllable and unquestionably the #1 option on his team. This team is aging quickly in the starting lineup and lacking in quality on the bench. Things have been on a steady decline and, unless the makeup of this team changes, it’s looking like the Rockets could be a .500 team or worse next season. Without any 1st round picks, Houston will really have to be aggressive in free agency this summer. Harden will be 28 next season, right in the height of his prime. Clock’s ticking.
Draft picks: None
Expiring contracts: Marvin Williams, Joe Johnson, Kevin Seraphin

CLEVELAND

The song remains the same for the Cavs. Three very good players, one Markieff Morris and the rest is negligible. Cleveland can probably count on those first four to wiggle them into at least one more postseason, but after that, who knows? Next season might finally be the year that Carmelo gets traded, or flat out just refuses to play for the Knicks, or maybe they just flat out refuse to play him. Who knows. You can count on LeBron and Green for the foreseeable future. Morris, I don’t know. Part of me just does not trust that dude as far as I could throw him (maybe like 2.5 feet?), but the other part of me thinks his role as a scorer/rebounder for Washington is slowly growing. One thing’s for sure: Cleveland needs to stop trading draft picks so that they can replenish the talent around their stars. No one else on the team is really worth two turds, save maybe Zaza. The Cavs have two more seasons on the contracts of their big four. Will they be able to put together a decent team around them? Time will tell.
Draft picks: None
Expiring contracts: Zaza Pachulia, DJ Augustin, Devin Harris, Randy Foye

SACRAMENTO

Sacramento arrived at a crossroads midseason and managed to turn things around quite well. They’re looking at another playoff season next year with a core of Cousins, CP3, Bradley Beal and Rudy Gay. My two big worries about this team are 1. Dwyane Wade and 2. cap space. Wade was so up and down this season, ending with a broken elbow. He will probably opt out of Chicago this offseason. Where does he go from there? Would some team really give him $25 million to be a #1 option like he probably wants? I seriously doubt it. Does he take less money to join a playoff team? Perhaps the Clippers if Redick leaves in the summer? Look, we all know we’ve seen the best of DWade and it’s only downhill from here. But the dropoff from this season to next could be drastic. And the cap space situation: when Wade and Gay come off IR, the Kings will be over cap by a couple million. They can get back under by letting Matt Barnes walk, and maybe Meyers Leonard is an amnesty candidate. Still, this leaves the team with little options to improve outside of the trade market. This team is damn lucky that Boogie is on such a cheap contract. Even if nothing changes at all, the Kings are probably still top 6 in the West next year.
Picks: None
Expiring contracts: Matthew Dellavedova, Matt Barnes, Kyle O’Quinn, Jordan Crawford

CHARLOTTE

This is a team in need of a star, and their lack of one showed in the playoffs. There’s really no need to pick apart this team: it’s solid. Even with Bazemore disappointing, this is a solid team 1-8. Charlotte’s going to be fine no matter what they do, but trading for a ringer could be a strategy they pursue. Unfortunately for them, the market for available superstars kind of oversaturated and evaporated during this season. Still, though, even if they do nothing, this is a really good young team. Kemba, Bradley, Porter, Capela, Warren and Kanter are all terrific young players that this team can sit back and watch grow. The big question is who gets amnestied this summer between Andrew Bogut and Jarnell Stokes.
Picks: #19
Expiring contracts: TJ Warren, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ian Clark, Joel Bolomboy, Rakeem Christmas

TORONTO

The Raptors will be psyched to get Lowry back next season and they’ll hope he and DeRozan will be just as great as they were this year. A few questions linger for the real-life Raptors, mainly centered around Serge Ibaka. Will he re-sign? And if so, how will be gel with Lowry? Fortunately for the Real Deal Raps, I don’t think it matters much. Last time Ibaka was third fiddle to two ball dominators, he turned into a complete ghost, but KD and Westbrook still got theirs. Jeff Teague was a great add and just had his best season ever. With Waiters playing out of his mind, Toronto looks like it might have the best backcourt in the East. Down low, however, there are questions. Unlike the real NBA, bigs matter a ton in this league. Guards don’t get double-doubles, but centers do. While he was still very effective this year, Zach Randolph moved to the bench for Memphis and will be 36 next season. Gortat had one of his best seasons this year, but again, he’s 33 and sometimes it really feels like Scott Brooks looks for excuses not to play him. Expect Toronto to be in the market for a big during the summer. For Toronto, there’s no need to be concerned. They’re still a lock for the Atlantic Division title for at least one more year.
Expiring contracts: Troy Daniels, Derrick Jones, Larry Sanders
Picks: None

UTAH

Utah has four players who average 40 or more PPG and still lost in the first round. Yeah. That’s how tough the top of the West is. I really don’t have much to say about this team except, “Better luck next time.” Utah won’t have to change much to be competitive again next year. They’ll have an open roster spot or two, depending on what they do with Plumlee, so I think the Jazz are a prime candidate to go all-out on the best player in free agency this summer, whoever that is. The Jazz are sort of like the Western version of Atlanta: really deep, but no true superstar (though maybe Hayward can become that guy).
Expiring contracts: Alexis Ajinca
Picks: None

ATLANTA

What can you say about your team if you go 71-11, setting the league record for most wins in a season, and go out in round 1 of the playoffs? Beyond campaigning as hard as possible for daily lineups, not much. In breaking down the upset loss, it’s easy to point to last-minute injuries and a games played disadvantage. But if you take a closer look, you’ll see that Atlanta was down in minutes to Miami by 50 total minutes over the entire week. If the minutes were even, would Atlanta have won? Yes. The Hawks lost by less than 60 points. It would’ve been close, but it probably would have been a win. But hold on a minute – shouldn’t a 1 seed be able to take care of an 8 seed, even if they’re at a slight minutes disadvantage? Therein lies Atlanta’s fatal flaw. The Hawks have built a roster of 15 very good players. But could you really call any of them stars? Can you count on any of them to get you 120 points in a given week in the playoffs? For years, we’ve been studying how important depth is vs. having just a couple of stars. And until now, the depth truthers have looked like they have the more compelling argument. Now, it looks like the Hawks might need to sacrifice some of their healthy depth for a star. It’s a tall order, but we’ve seen that it can prevent them from reaching the next level. Regardless, the Hawks will be a contender out of the East next season.
Expiring contracts: Lou Williams, Tony Allen
Picks: None

Real Deal Basketball Report: Conference Semifinals Predictions and Post-Mortems

CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS

EAST

8 MIAMI VS. 5 MILWAUKEE

KA-BOOOOM! TWO UPSETS IN THE EAST! OK, one was a real upset, the other not so much. Miami has done the impossible by taking down a 1 seed as a lowly 8 seed. Blame the lack of daily lineups? Sure. But the Heat gave a hell of a performance. So did Milwaukee. In fact, the two were separated by a measly 2 points in round 1 scoring. So, yeah, I expect this to be a tight one. The Bucks are a team that continues to perplex. Sure, they’ve got Giannis. But the supporting cast is so weird. Elfrid Payton. He gets triple doubles on the regular now? What?! Robert Covington is still playing hero ball? Hmm. The production from those three has been unreal. Serge Ibaka and Thad Young, however, have disappointed over the past few weeks. This team has suddenly become top-heavy, at least in the short term. Miami, meanwhile…I’m just not sold on them. How far can you really go when your best player is Goran Dragic? A lot of their players have struggled lately. In the last two weeks, only two players besides Dragic are scoring 30 PPG or more: Harrison Barnes and Jonas Valanciunas. Miami got by because of those three, a minutes advantage over Atlanta and a couple of Hawks guys sitting out. I don’t know if they’ll get as lucky this time. I’m going with MILWAUKEE to make it to the conference finals.

2 INDIANA VS. 3 CHICAGO

No one can stop Indy, as far as I’m concerned. They got healthy competition from the Cavs last week and still trounced them, scoring the most points of the week by a wide margin. Westbrook is Westbrook. Blake is slipping a bit as of late, but Gobert has been an absolute monster recently. Nobody is happier about Atlanta going down than Indy, because it basically punches their ticket for a second consecutive trip to the finals. Last year, they did it as an underdog. This year they’re the favorites. Getting past Chicago is not exactly a walk in the park, especially with how well Whiteside and Ricky Rubio have been playing lately, but the Pacers are just too good right now to pick against. To sum up: my pick is INDIANA.

WEST

1 NEW ORLEANS VS. 4 PORTLAND

Terrific showing by the Blazers in Round 1. Bad luck for Utah. #VoteDailyLineups. We always knew it was gonna be a close one, and of course Portland came from behind on the final day to take the win and send a division rival packing. The Blazers have got to be confident heading into the semifinals: their opponent, the No. 1 Pelicans, scored almost 300 points fewer in Round 1. New Orleans, meanwhile, should be concerned after putting up the third-lowest point total in the opening week of the postseason. They’re lucky they got that 1 seed; they would have lost to Houston handily, and anyone else in the West apart from Phoenix. They’ll have Jrue Holiday in the starting lineup this week, but will that really be enough to overcome the deficit of points they’ve been missing elsewhere? Bledsoe has been shut down for the rest of the year, making Holiday more of a stopgap than a net addition for the playoffs. In Round 1, all of their players gave at- or near-average performances. In the playoffs, you need more. The same was true for Portland, too, actually, but they’ve got more options they can go to on the bench this week. Hardaway, McConnell, and Afflalo have been playing well lately. And Archie Goodwin signed with Brooklyn out of nowhere, so maybe that turns into something. My pick for this round is still NEW ORLEANS because their talent is more evenly distributed. But I don’t feel particularly good about it.

2 SAN ANTONIO VS. 3 GOLDEN STATE

Last round shows how bad I am at predictions. The Warriors went down by over 100 points on day 2 and had a not insignificant minutes deficit to Sacramento. Not only did they come back to win, they scored the second most points of the week. San Antonio did well enough and fended off a late push from Houston, but it was obvious there were some holes in the lineup. Chandler didn’t play and Jennings, Booker and Dieng underperformed. Evan Turner is back, which should provide a nice boost. The Warriors, meanwhile, are red hot and have no holes. More than half of their starters scored over 40 PPG last week. And their bench looks pretty healthy, too. Screw what I said last week about the Warriors riding Curry to a title last year; this team is damn good. San Antonio is going to need monster performances from their big three in order to win. I don’t think their stars have enough help. I’m picking GOLDEN STATE to make it to the conference finals.

POST-MORTEMS

This is a new feature I’m rolling out. NBA writer Tim Bontemps has been doing these for a couple of seasons. Basically, he breaks down what went wrong with teams as they are eliminated from playoff contention. But there’s no way I would have bothered to calculate exactly who went out when during the season, so I waited until the actual start of the playoffs to do these.

This week I’m just focusing on the teams who missed the playoffs – there would be way too much to write otherwise. I’ll have the eight losers from Round 1 next week.

I’m also going to take a bit more of an optimistic view. Instead of harping on about why these teams fell short, I’ll focus on what they should do in the offseason. Basketball is all about feeling good.

 

OKLAHOMA CITY


Another terrible year, though I do have to point out the Thunder got six times the amount of wins this year as last year, so there was some improvement (I guess). More than enough has been said about this team’s dire situation. This team is still an incredibly long way away from getting back into the playoffs, but there are at least a couple of bright spots here. OKC scrimped together some assets to grab a couple of late picks last offseason, and some may bear fruit. Tyler Ulis has looked awesome now that the Suns are in full tank mode and Bledsoe is being held out. He’s had a 20-point game, a 13 and 13 game and a 17 and 11 game in March. Like I’ve said about this kid in the past, he has a great on his tiny shoulders and he can straight up ball. Hopefully he’s playing himself into a role for the Suns in the future. If there was any coach that would give him a shot, it’s Earl Watson. Furkan Korkmaz remains a mystery but I believe in his upside. The rest of the picks look like busts, unfortunately. But the Thunder have traditionally done well with free agency – they rode Hassan Whiteside to the playoffs two seasons ago – and they’ve got two good ones again in Dewayne Dedmon and Alan Williams. Dedmon’s contract is a bit expensive but he’s always been underrated and is a perfect Spurs guy. Williams is a bit more iffy given his size and physical limitations (read: he’s a fat fatty), but you can’t deny that he’s performed well this season. If OKC can manage more of that – playing it smart in free agency and finding a couple of decent guys in the draft – they’ll be back on the right track.

Expiring contracts: Korkmaz, AJ Hammons, Sheldon McClellan, Sergio Llull, Nicolas Brussino
Draft picks: None

 

ORLANDO

Talk about another “how the mighty have fallen” team. The number 1 seed two years ago, the Magic really fell off a cliff this year when all of their players either got old or became free agents. This roster is a bizarre combination of ancients, misfits and weird rookies. Nene, RJ and Jet are all way too old to consider holding onto. Wilcox and Huestis are not NBA players. The rookie crop – Bender, Zubac, Williams, Ndour, Jackson and Ochefu – are all worthless, minus the two big Euros. The rest? Greg Monroe remains in no man’s land, lost in time as a big guy who can’t play D or shoot from long range (AKA the Jurassic Era). Derrick Favors – what the hell happened to that guy? Tyreke Evans – who the hell knows with that guy at any given circumstance? Ross has some promise in Orlando but Frank Vogel’s rotations are so completely fucked that even that’s not a given. The good news? It means that no one should be considered untouchable in Orlando. Now is the perfect time to make some moves. Some guys should be flipped for any perceivable asset, and some others could fetch a legitimate prize. It’s less about “blowing it up” and more about wiping a bunch of snot and poo off of the mirror so you can take a look at yourself and figure out what to do next. Having two picks in the top four certainly helps. Uncertain times in Orlando – but after a 14-win season, that’s a good thing.

Expiring contracts: Richard Jefferson, Demetrius Jackson, Maurice Ndour, Troy Williams, Daniel Ochefu
Draft picks: #2 (projected), #4 (projected) via NYK

 

BROOKLYN

I will never forgive the guy who owned this team before me, traded the team for picks 2 and 3 in the 2014 draft, and then skipped the draft. I could’ve had Wiggins and Embiid! But I’m really not so bitter about it anymore. I don’t trust myself with draft picks anyway. After more or less whiffing on four top 10 picks (Ingram, Johnson, Hezonja and Cauley-Stein), it’s hard to get excited about having even a high lottery pick again. This was the year that I decided the rebuild can’t take another five years. I swapped picks and prospects for proven talent. It was finally time for me to admit to myself that the likes of Vonleh, Jerian Grant, Rashad Vaughn and a bunch of late first round picks are probably never going to amount to anything. I scrimped together pretty unappealing assets and turned them into OK players. Not ones who will win me a title, but OK ones. Suddenly, I’ve ended up with a lot more players scoring in the 20s and 30s than in the 10s and 20s. Thompson is a keeper. Patty Mills is a free agent, and even if he comes back to the Spurs, he could be the starting PG. Richaun Holmes is a real NBA player, damn it, and I hope he stays on my squad for his whole career. Courtney Lee had a great year and Hollis-Jefferson can definitely reach MKG levels. My one regret? Trading Tyler Johnson for a pick. Oh well. I finished the year on an 8-6 run. Again, not amazing, but I was no longer losing every game by a million points. My hopes for next season? Eight seed. Playoffs. The Atlantic will remain weak, with Boston, New York and Philly trending down or staying the same (I finished with more points scored than Boston and New York, despite the worse record). I’m not sure if I can get to .500, which is the bare minimum of what you’ll need to make the playoffs in the East, but if guys like Hezonja, Stan Johnson and Ingram take a step forward in development, it could happen. Maybe Osman and Zagorac will come over and be decent. I’ll consider whatever I get from my picks to be a bonus. This has been an excruciatingly discouraging rebuild, but I’m finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Just a little.

Expiring contracts: Tyler Zeller
Draft picks: #3 (projected), #15 (from Phoenix)

 

NEW YORK

Under new ownership, the Knicks went from their just-below-mediocre plateau to downright terrible this year. But oddly, that’s a good thing. Move no. 1 was also the team’s best move this year, getting Kristaps Porzingis and giving the franchise some direction for the first time. Unlike the real Knicks, New York is doing the right thing by putting the team’s future in his big Latvian hands. The team has a preposterous seven rookies, and some of them have decent promise. Caris LeVert is looking like a nice player – a good scorer and passer with great size. Thon Maker remains mysterious and interesting and is worth waiting on. The rest? Jake Layman? Henry Ellenson? Georges Niang? Arguably not NBA players. (The jury is out on Brice Johnson because Doc Rivers is a maniac.) The good news is that New York has five first round picks over the next two years, even if three of them will be in the late 20s. Porzingis is only 21, so the clock is ticking very slowly, but it still would be nice to see some real talent developing around him. This is looking like it’s going to be a long rebuild, but at least there’s some intent by the ownership of this team for the first time. Keep an eye out for this team in free agency, too: they’ll have about $70 million to spend, depending on who gets re-signed.

Expiring contracts: Joe Harris, KJ McDaniels, Salah Mejri, Tiago Splitter, Brice Johnson, Georges Niang, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Rakeem Christmas
Picks: #22 (from Atlanta) and another in the late 20s from San Antonio

 

LOS ANGELES LAKERS

Trading a superstar is never fun or easy. It helps when you have two top 10 picks, but I gotta say, the more I look at this draft, the more it looks like there will really only be one, two or three stars in the lottery. The rest look like really, really solid players, but I only see a couple in this draft that are likely franchise-changers. The good news for the Lakers is they have the best shot at the #1 pick. After trading Durant, LA predictably went into a tailspin. Still, there are a few good players on this roster. Clarkson, despite his ludicrous contract, is a decent young guy to have. He should be in the league for a long time. Robin Lopez is as solid, if boring, as ever. Belinelli and Danny Green are decent bench guys to have, but maybe not for a rebuilding team. The Lakers have essentially zero on the roster in terms of young prospects (no, Ron Baker does not count). This means it could be an interesting offseason in Hollywood. They could trade pretty much any player on the roster for a pick or prospect and it would be a good move. So the possibilities are limitless here. It wouldn’t be the worst idea to amass a morass of youngsters and picks and see what sticks a couple of years down the road. First thing’s first, though: OKC has to win the lottery and the Lakers have to nail the pick for this to be a rebuild of any promise.

Expiring contracts: Marco Belinelli, Ron Baker, Chasson Randle
Picks: #1 (projected) from OKC, #6 (projected) from LAC

 

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

A mass exodus of superstars from Los Angeles seems like a weird thing, but here we are. We’ve all talked enough about the trades. So what’s left in Clippertown? Dario Saric has looked awesome – I mean really freaking good – in the last month or so. But how much of that production is going to stick around next season when Simmons and Embiid are back? Depending on how the draft goes for Philly, Saric might be the #5 option offensively for the Sixers. The talent is certainly there, but the opportunity remains shrouded. LA has six other rookies. Do any of them have any promise? Don’t talk to me about Whitehead. TLC could be a nice 3 and D guy, but Justin Anderson really cramps his style and Korkmaz might be coming soon. Wade Baldwin can’t get ahead of a Harrison brother on the depth chart, so that’s all you need to know about him. Deyonta Davis is by far the most promising of the bunch. But, again, will he ever get the opportunity? Josh Richardson is a keeper. But is anyone else? Next year is basically already a lost year for the Clippers since they don’t have their pick, but that’s a good thing for them. It gives them essentially a free year to wait on guys like Davis, Baldwin and Brooklyn castoffs Jerian Grant and Rashad Vaughn to develop. David West, Norris Cole, Aron Baynes and Spencer Hawes should be sent with cash for any conceivable 2nd round pick. The goal for LA now is just to take as many shots as possible and hope that some stick. This is a long-term rebuild, but there’s only one way to go from here, and that’s up.

Expiring contracts: Dario Saric, Isaiah Whitehead, Chinanu Onuaku
Picks: Two in the 20s from Milwaukee and Indiana (potentially #30). It was a potentially fatal mistake getting Indy’s pick and not Philly’s.

 

DALLAS

Nikola Jokic. Nikola. Jokic. NIIIIII. KOOOO. LAAAAA. JOKIC. If Dallas is going to do anything of note in the near future, it’l be because of Nikola Jokic. He’s been the 13th best player in Real Deal over the last two months and he’s a center who gets triple-doubles. From a fantasy perspective, the sky’s the limit for this guy. The rest of the roster is a total mystery. Jae Crowder and Pat Beverley are gone, and now Pau Gasol is here. Nikola Mirotic is looking more and more like a lost cause. Jamal Murray and Nerlens Noel were traded away for a pick. On the other hand, Juancho Hernangomez looks like a real solid player and Seth Curry has flourished under Rick Carlisle. The Mavs love to reward those types of players. Is this team rebuilding or not? They looked like a surefire bottom-three team for most of the season, but Jokic may have messed that up a bit by playing so well down the stretch. Nevertheless, Dallas has two top-seven picks in what everyone is saying is a loaded draft. If the team can nail both selections, they’ll have two studs to partner up with Jokic, and this team could get dangerous quick. I’m keeping my eye on this team in free agency this summer, too, where they’ve been very successful (see: Jokic, Curry).

Expiring contracts: Kyle Anderson, Malcolm Delaney
Picks: #5 (projected) from LAL, #7 (projected)

 

BOSTON

Another bad year for the Celtics, but at least this time we can say they’ve got some real promising players. D’Angelo Russell has become criminally underrated and is one of the most irrationally hated/disrespected players I think I’ve ever seen. Seriously, the kid can play. There’s definitely a lot he can do to get better – his shooting, scoring and passing all need to improve – but you can see the talent. And Jusuf Nurkic has been a monster since being freed from Denver. Remember when he had 28 and 20 with 8 assists? Yeah. The rest of the roster I have little to no confidence in, apart from Justise Winslow. Justin Holiday, Luke Babbitt, Brandon Rush and several others all seem like end-of-the-bench players for contenders, not starters for a rebuilding team. This makes them prime trade candidates. I’d look for Boston to be active on the trade market in a search for young prospects. Picking as low as they’re projected to, you can no longer count on grabbing a star, even in this draft.

Expiring contracts: Jusuf Nurkic, DeAndre Liggins, CJ Watson, Brandon Rush, Malik Beasley
Picks: #8 (projected), #17 (from Houston)

 

MINNESOTA

Kevin Love on the Minnesota Timberwolves is starting to look a lot like Kevin Love on the Minnesota Timberwolves. He remains a very useful player to have, but where’s the talent around him? Aside from maybe Norman Powell and Kelly Oubre, who can you count on to be a part of this team’s future? The Wolves are in dire need of a reboot, and I’m not sure how they’re going to achieve it. One could do a bit of a salesman job in pitching the likes of Omri Casspi, Mike Beasley and Garrett Temple in trades. Whatever picks or prospects they can get for those guys would be a step in the right direction. This could also be a rare case of when trading a superstar might be a good move, if Minnesota can manage to get a good return on him. The team has been adamant in keeping him in the past, but perhaps a second poor season and the departure of Jeff Teague could signal a change of heart. Either way, I’d keep an eye on Minnesota to be making some changes this offseason.

Expiring contracts: Fred VanVleet, Cat Barber
Picks: #9 (projected), #19 (from Sacramento)

 

DETROIT

Detroit is loading up on picks, prospects and reclamation projects, which to me is exactly the move to make after trading Andre Drummond last season. Picking up the likes of Willy Hernangomez, Larry Nance and Sean Kilpatrick were the types of shrewd moves that the Pistons need to continue making. Other youngsters like Buddy Hield, Terry Rozier and Malachi Richardson have shown flashes. This team, to me, is very much in the “wait and see” phase. They’ve done the job of getting younger, and now they just have to see who develops and who doesn’t. I think their one true mistake this season was not selling high on James Johnson – he’s having an unreal season and probably will never match that production again. The first course of action for Detroit is to start scouting some late round picks. But they’re on the right track.

Expiring contracts: Doug McDermott, Spencer Dinwiddie, Noah Vonleh, Malachi Richardson, Thomas Robinson
Picks: Three in the 20s and beyond (maybe) from Toronto, Utah and New Orleans

 

PHILADELPHIA

The new ownership in Philadelphia brings a certain – I think boldness is the correct word – to the 76ers. Despite an overwhelming lack of talent, this is a team that never counted itself out and coasted past a bunch of tankers to a second place finish in the Atlantic. There are some interesting guys here, but none to build a franchise around. Mudiay is looking more and more like a bust. Frank Kaminsky is just a role player. The most interesting parts of this roster are the Detroit pick, followed by Marquese Chriss in a distant second. There are a lot of players in Philly that don’t need to be there, which means a big overhaul could and probably should be in play this summer. The Sixers should also focus on getting more picks, if they can. Dumping Jrue Holiday for a top-10 pick was a great move. Also, Malcolm Brogdon for president.

Expiring contracts: Malcolm Brogdon, Dante Cunningham, Dorian Finney-Smith, Bruno Caboclo
Picks: #10 (projected) from Detroit

 

MEMPHIS

Tradtionally a pretty good team, Memphis was set back this year by big injuries to Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, the two Grizzlies kingpins. Props to them for keeping the crew together despite a bad year, and props to them for being one of the few teams left with their two original franchise guys (mine are looooooong gone). Despite career years for Eric Gordon, JaMychal Green and Wayne Ellington, Memphis didn’t stand a chance in the West. In addition to injuries, the Grizzlies have had the misfortune of dealing with the sudden collapse of two players they got a lot of compliments for drafting three years ago in DeMarre Carroll, who looks broken beyond repair, and Jared Sullinger, who is now so fat and bad that even the Suns didn’t want him. With a good offseason, Memphis could be right back in the thick of things, though. Gasol and Conley obviously give them a good place to start. Gordon seems to have finally found his fit in Houston. Recent developments involving Taurean Prince are encouraging. Ante Zizic is apparently beasting in Europe. And Tim Frazier is a legit NBA player (?!?!?!). There’s a lot of dead weight on the roster, but the Grizzlies already have the foundation of a contender. Could be a quick fix.

Expiring contracts: Hollis Thompson, Paul Zipser, Ante Zizic
Picks: #12 (projected)

 

DENVER

Another year, another ho-hum season for Denver. After an exciting end of the first season that saw the team sneak into the playoffs, not much has happened for the Nuggets, despite some really exciting development from the likes of CJ McCollum and Devin Booker. It’s a real shame. With a little attention, this could be a special team. A core of McCollum, Booker, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown is really damn special, but they’re not going to do anything without some help. Brian Roberts is your starting point guard? Really? Josh SMITH is still on the roster? Really?! This team needs to figure out what’s up, and quickly. They’re not good enough to be a contender. They’re not bad enough to consider a total rebuild or get a high pick. Things can change quickly with a little tinkering. But if the Nuggets continue to stagnate, well, expect more of the same.

Expiring contracts: Marcus Smart, Brian Roberts, Guerschon Yabusele, Petr Cornelie
Picks: #13 (projected)

 

WASHINGTON

The Wizards rode an unbelievable hot streak to a title two years ago and have been on a steady decline ever since, going .500 and missing out on the playoffs this season. John Wall is comfortably a top-10 player, and the supporting cast has some really interesting pieces. So why the lack of success? Too many players scoring in the 10s in the starting lineup. Julius Randle and Tyson Chandler can be good pieces on a contender. Washington struck gold twice, it seems, in Skal Labissiere and Yogi Ferrell. I remember before the start of last season, some people had Skal ahead of Ben Simmons. I’m not saying they were right, but it just goes to show you can’t trust John Calipari with making NBA prospects look good (see also: Devin Booker, Jamal Murray). Sabonis Junior has been atrocious this year but there’s no way a kid that smart is a total dud forever. Mike Scott is the easiest amnesty candidate of all time. So there is a lot of promise here: the roster can get a lot better very quickly. Add in three picks and you’re looking OK. Get the rookies in and let deadweights Jeff Green, Wesley Johnson and Luis Scola take a walk. Washington could easily be back in the playoffs next year, even as the East gets better and better.

Expiring contracts: Julius Randle, Jameer Nelson, Wesley Johnson, Shabazz Napier, Diamond Stone
Picks: #14 (projected), #17 (from Cleveland), one pick in the late 20s (from Golden State)

 

Real Deal Basketball Report: Round 1 Playoff Predictions

Guys, this has been a really great season. We’ve had some monster trades, big-time performances, tight divisional races and the formation of some real super-team type squads.

But the one thing that’s been missing? Playoff drama.

Let’s be real: We’ve known who the playoff teams would be since, like, early December. There is such a massive divide between the good teams and the bad teams in this league that it’s actually a little bit ridiculous. There are only two teams with records even CLOSE to .500: Washington and Phoenix, and Phoenix only because they blew their team up a month ago. The biggest trend in this league by far is that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Ho hum.

But anyway. The playoffs are here! Let’s break it down.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

1. ATLANTA VS. 8. MIAMI

This could be a very interesting 1-8 matchup, which is sort of an oxymoron. Atlanta has proved that the most important thing to have in this league is depth, riding a tidal wave of nine 30+ PPG scorers to a Real Deal record 71 wins. So their victory over the lowly 8 seed should be a sure thing, right? Not so fast. Riding high off of the acquisition of Harrison “Not Empty Stats” Barnes, this new-look Miami team has seven players who score 30 or more PPG – incidentally, the same amount of players the Hawks have at that mark over the past month. The main difference between the two? Atlanta has two star-level players, or near it, in Millsap and Howard. They’ve given near 50 points apiece pretty consistently across the season. Throw in the fact that Miami’s best player, Goran Dragic, is dealing with one of the ugliest looking face injuries I’ve seen in basketball and I think the Hawks can wrap this one up pretty handily. The Heat do have a slight minutes advantage this week, but I’m still giving it to ATLANTA.

 

2. INDIANA VS. 7. CLEVELAND

A Central Division clash! Westbrook vs. LeBron! Actually, there’s not much to say about these two teams apart from what I’ve been saying about them for a while now. Indiana is a super team with the potential to become a dynasty. Cleveland has three awesome players and 11 crappy ones. The Pacers, who have been at or near the top in scoring since acquiring Griffin and Westbrook, will win this matchup in a landslide. Sadly, March LeBron is not Playoffs LeBron. One thing to watch as a potential Achilles’ heel for Indy as the playoffs go on: the dismal lack of depth. If one of their starters goes out next week, they could be in trouble. And that’s with Dante Exum and his 14 PPG already in the starting 8. Still, though, my pick is INDIANA.

 

3. CHICAGO VS. 6 CHARLOTTE

Oh boy. It’s been a bad luck season for the Bulls. I’ll start with the most obvious thing, and that’s Kevin Durant and his 57 PPG sitting out injured. Add in the announcement of Chandler Parson’s knee busting again after lineups were set, meaning Chicago is playing 7 on 8 before the action really even begins. This is a team that should’ve done better. Difficult to say, considering they’re behind only the untouchable Hawks and super team Pacers in the East, but the Bulls were as low as the 6 seed just yesterday afternoon. They’ve been fending off the Bucks (somehow?!) in the Central all season and has recently been going through the eating-of-dust of the aforementioned Pacers in the Central. Durant wasn’t supposed to get hurt. Tobias Harris was supposed to become a leading scorer for Detroit. Aaron Gordon was supposed to play power forward all season, but Frank Vogel and his asinine lineups ruined that, too (trust me, I’ve been there). Oh, and which team are they up against in the first round of the playoffs? A red-hot Charlotte team that comfortably scored the most points in the league last week. The Hornets are a sort of Hawks-lite-ish team in that they’re deep but lack a true superstar. Kemba is the closest thing they have, but that’s OK when the supporting cast includes Avery Bradley, Otto Porter, Clint Capela and Enes Kanter, all of whom are having their best seasons. Chicagos’ bad luck continues and they’ll become the first upset of Round 1 so far, falling to CHARLOTTE.

 

4. TORONTO VS. 5. MILWAUKEE

Now that seedings are based on record first and not division titles, Toronto no longer automatically slots into the 3 seed, but luckily for them they’ve only fallen one spot. This is a team that’s a bit on its heels at the moment, losing their best player in Kyle Lowry. They’ve still got some competent talent, enjoying meaningful production from DeRozan, Gortat, Teague, Randolph and the no-longer-a-piece-of-crap-apparently Dion Waiters. In some cases, that’s enough to win a playoff series against a lower seed. Milwaukee, somehow, hung near the top of the Central all season long despite only having five truly good players (the same amount Toronto currently has) in Giannis, Ibaka, Payton, Young and Sir Robert Covington. This season, Toronto had the single easiest schedule in the league. Milwaukee’s difficulty of schedule was right in the middle of the pack at the 13th hardest. The teams finished 11th and 13th in total scoring. So your guess is really as good as anyone’s in this situation. I’ll give the slight edge to Milwaukee here. The Bucks have Giannis. And the Raptors are missing Lowry badly. So, yeah, the pick is MILWAUKEE, a team that continues to hang on.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

1. NEW ORLEANS VS. 8. PHOENIX

Nothing to see here, folks. This would’ve been a hell of a matchup if Phoenix still had Westbrook and Thomas. IT is back to burn his old team with Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, Eric Bledsoe and company to help. NEW ORLEANS in a landslide, featuring Jrue Holiday next week.

 

2. SAN ANTONIO VS. 7. HOUSTON

Another fairly uninteresting matchup. San Antonio is the top scoring team in the league and is starting to get healthy again with Lin and soon Turner coming back to support Kawhi, KAT and Drummond. Houston, who had their regular season wins record broken this year, has James Harden and not much else. In terms of the playoff teams, the Rockets were second to last in scoring, ahead of only Phoenix. As one of the few teams in the league without an abundance of cap room, this offseason will be a meaningful one for Houston. The pick is SAN ANTONIO.

 

3. GOLDEN STATE VS. 6. SACRAMENTO

This is a tricky matchup. Golden State are the reigning champs, but in hindsight, it’s starting to feel like the Dubs rode Curry all the way to the title last year. That’s not really an option anymore. Curry is putting out a whole 10 PPG fewer than he did last year. The supporting cast remains strong, but those 10 points missing from your top guy do matter. The Warriors are enjoying a great second-year jump from Myles Turner, but Klay Thompson and Brook Lopez have both declined ever so slightly from last year. On the other hand, JJ Barea is coming back just in time, and Bojan Bogdanovic has somehow had some amazing games since arriving in DC. Sacramento has had one heck of a weird season. After losing Rudy Gay for the season, it looked for a bit like the Kings were throwing in the towel as they struggled to keep up with the West’s best. Dirk was shipped out of town. But then something miraculous happened: the Kings acquired Chris Paul, perhaps the best point guard of his generation, for basically free. And Chris Paul came back from injury and resumed normal Chris Paul Activities, keeping the Kings alive and allowing the team to lock up the 6 seed and avoiding a dreaded matchup with New Orleans or San Antonio. Look, Golden State has been the better team consistently over the course of the season, but Sacramento has a real chance here. And that’s where I stopped writing before the Monday night games started, which kind of ruined by prediction. So, yeah, the Kings have a 100-point lead and a minutes advantage. The winner is SACRAMENTO.

 

4. PORTLAND VS. 5. UTAH

This is the only possible way this could have ended up. The preseason favorites to take the Northwest, Utah could only watch as the red-hot Blazers tore through the first month or so of the season, building a lead that looked at points to be insurmountable. This led the Jazz to do some tinkering, acquiring Al Horford, Cody Zeller and Nikola Vucevic to shore up the frontcourt positions and give Hayward some help. Utah came roaring back, reclaiming the top spot on the division. The arms race continued and Portland brought in Dirk, Jae Crowder and Pat Beverley to add to a squad that sorely lacked depth. These two teams were neck and neck for the longest time, but in the end it was the Blazers who came out on top to lock up the 4 seed…only to face the team they’d been fending off all year long. This is my favorite matchup of Round 1. These are two teams that are just very, very solid from 1-8. I expect this to come down to the wire, but I’m giving the edge here to the team that can hope for some superstar performances from Damian Lillard and Jimmy Butler: PORTLAND.

 

One interesting note in all of this: Kyle O’Quinn will likely be claimed off waivers this week by a playoff team. If he’s plucked by a team that advances to the next round, he could be a difference maker. Keep an eye on that.

So that’s it! Enjoy Round 1! And let me know your predictions too!

Real Deal Basketball Report: All-Star 2017 Recap

After a pretty quiet December, many teams in this league experienced significant changes in fortune during the first month and a half of 2017. If 2016 was a fairly dull year for the league as a whole, it’s looking like 2017 is shaping up to be quite an interesting one. Let’s take a closer look.

 

THE CLIPPERS FINALLY BEGIN THE REBUILD

The LA Clippers have had a rough go of it from the inception of the league. Armed with two superstars in Chris Paul (a top three point guard of all time in this humble reporter’s opinion) and Blake Griffin (a mega-talented but oft-injured unicorn who finished third in MVP voting a few years ago), the Clips were somehow never able to build a good team around them. For a while, their third best player was Kyle Korver. Much like the real Clippers, LA never put it all together to achieve any real success.

At nearly 30 games under .500 in a top-heavy Pacific Division with no playoff appearances in three years and with precisely two good players and no promising ones (OK fine, maybe Josh Richardson), blowing this team up and starting from scratch was probably the correct move. And so Blake and CP3 were gone. Let’s dive deep on these trades.

LAC receives: Dario Saric, Deyonta Davis and the Pacers’ 1st round pick
IND receives: Blake Griffin

I hated this trade at first and can guarantee you that the Clippers had at least one better offer than this. But the more I think about it, the less atrocious it seems. Look, a 50-point player is extremely rare and make no mistake: the return here should have been greater. But you can understand why the Clippers liked what they got.

Saric is putting together a really nice rookie season and will only get better once Ilyasova clears out. He looks like an important piece for the future of the Sixers and will have lots of opportunity to do some good things in a lineup featuring Embiid, Simmons and whatever point guard Philly drafts this summer. He’s a guy I can see averaging something like 15-17 points, 6-8 rebounds and 4-5 assists in his prime.

Deyonta Davis was probably a lottery-level talent in this rookie class (granted, it’s looking like the weakest draft in at least a decade) but fell to the second round because he’s so unpolished. He’s definitely a prospect, but he’s noted more for his defense than anything, which doesn’t often translate into fantasy relevance. And the Grizzlies aren’t exactly known for throwing young players into the mix right away – or even within the first like five years. He’s buried behind ZBo, JaMychal Green and Jarell Martin, though Green is a free agent this summer and Memphis won’t be able to afford a new contract for him, so there’s that.

The Indy pick will be like #25 at best because the Pacers got so much better because of this trade. Picks are always nice, but the talent in this draft falls off monumentally after like the 15th pick, and Indy ain’t finishing in the lottery.

So basically this trade amounts to Griffin for Saric and two mumbled prayers. I’m shocked that this trade happened without the Philly pick. Or without any of the Pacers’ million other young prospects with actual promise. No Exum? No Lyles? No Garry Harris? Just Deyonta Davis?

I’ll refrain for now from talking any more about how this affects the Clippers and instead talk about how this affects Indiana and the East, because that’s more interesting.

The Pacers instantly just became the second-best team in the East. Atlanta has to be nervous. And the rest of the contenders in the East are now focusing on the #3 seed, because that’s as high as any of them will get. The Pacers have just acquired their best player mid-season, which is alarming to say the least for all competitors. This team now has a four-headed monster of Griffin, George, Gobert and Westbrook (more on that later) that rivals the top-heavy Spurs and Pelicans, but the Pacers also enjoy decent depth about 10 players deep. Their strategy must now be to trade Dunn for a player who can help now and Exum for whatever they can get.

This spells trouble for Chicago, who should have been the favorites to win the Central. That roster, even with Kevin Durant, just has too many holes to keep pace (pun intended) with Indiana. And somehow they’re even behind the Bucks now. Time to re-jigger.

Atlanta has just been so good so far that their spot atop the East probably remains safe. But can they really beat Indy in the Eastern finals? It’ll be a hell of a matchup. Both teams need to stay healthy.

And now the other trade:

LAC receives: Isaiah Whitehead, Wade Baldwin IV and the Bucks’ 1st round pick
SAC receives: Chris Paul

As a commissioner in this league I do feel obligated to censor myself here. Enough has been said about this trade. The only things left to say are 1. Congrats, Kings and 2. We’ll all be keeping a close eye on how many All-Star games Whitehead plays in.

 

NEW LEADER IN THE WILD WILD WEST

For forever, it seemed like the Spurs would lock down the Southwest Division with New Orleans just behind. But the Pelicans have been getting hotter and hotter thanks in large part to Joel Embiid, the Living Meme, and the Spurs have fallen off just a little bit and actually look just a little bit thin, especially with recent injuries.

Over the past month, New Orleans has five players averaging 40 points or more per game. The trio of Davis, Embiid (when healthy) and Bledsoe alone give you almost 170 points a night. And the team just got even better by acquiring Nerlens Noel and Jamal Murray for a pick. Sure, let’s just give this team every single young and talented player in the NBA. AND Ben Simmons hasn’t even played yet – and for all we know he could become the best player on this team. AND they’re $30 million under the cap. AND they have a lottery pick this year, and two more next year. Jesus. The more I look at this roster the more I just want to quit because this team will be one of the two or three best teams in the league for at least the next 10 years. The one worry right now, of course, is centered on the health of Embiid’s knee. How much longer will he be out?

So what happened to the Spurs? Well, it’s really not that anything happened to them, per se – it’s more that good things happened to the teams around them. The Spurs have been very quiet in the trade market this year, and why wouldn’t you be when you have Kawhi, Drummond and Towns? But the problem for the Spurs is depth. Wilson Chandler isn’t good enough to be your fourth-best player if you want to win a championship. Teams like the Pelicans, Trail Blazers and Warriors have added more pieces to build up some depth while the Spurs have remained stagnant. San Antonio has a strong top eight, but if one or two of their stars isn’t playing more than one game in a given period, this team is beatable. With Lin out there is no bench to speak of here. They’re still in prime position in the West to advance to the conference finals, but a real danger exists that New Orleans will leave them in the dust, or that another playoff team with a big three like Portland or Utah could surprise them early.

 

INDIANA: BACK WITH A VENGEANCE

There will be no Finals loss hangover for the Pacers, it appears, as the team has reloaded with Griffin and Russell Westbrook, who is currently putting together one of the best statistical seasons of the past 25 years. Let’s examine this trade because I’ve already gushed enough about this Indy team. (OK, one more: I’ve never seen a team add two absolute ringers like this before, ever.)

IND receives: Westbrook, Brandon Knight and (somehow also?!) Phoenix’s 2018 1st round pick
PHX receives: Zach LaVine, Jabari Parker and Kris Dunn

I think the one thing we’ve learned (or really I guess we still haven’t) is that you should never, ever trade a superstar. There’s a reason it doesn’t happen in the real NBA. The return is almost never anything close to equal value and is almost always done because the player says he wants to leave town – but our players don’t get a choice in free agency. We saw what happened when OKC traded Durant and Westbrook. We saw the Durant trade earlier this year. We saw the Clippers trades. And now this.

I will say that this trade is the closest to equal value for a superstar that we’ve seen so far, but Indiana still wins this by a mile. Westbrook scores over 70 PPG. End of story. If I’m trading Westbrook, it means I’m rebuilding, and there’s no way I’m including pot sweeteners like Knight and my own pick next year, which, for Phoenix, looks like it could be in the lottery. Still, the return pieces are actually worthwhile. Parker played at an All-Star level this season, but one wonders how he’ll bounce back from a second torn ACL in three seasons. The reports are that he’s looking at a 12-month rehab period, so not only is he done for the rest of this season, but also for the majority of next season, as well. LaVine is another ACL tear victim, and was putting together a great campaign in his own right. He’s another question mark in terms of how he’ll play post-surgery: his game is so dependent on his explosiveness and athleticism, and some guys are never the same after a serious knee injury. For Dunn, I’ll just say this: the jury is basically still out on him, but in my opinion he’s looked like basically the worst player in the NBA this season and his lack of polish for a soon-to-be 23-year-old who spent three years in college hoops is kind of shocking.

 

PLAYOFF SEEDS SETTLING

It’s pretty much all but settled at this point which teams are in. Let’s take a look at the current order:

WESTERN CONFERENCE

  1. New Orleans
  2. San Antonio
  3. Golden State
  4. Utah
  5. Portland
  6. Sacramento
  7. Houston
  8. Phoenix

EASTERN CONFERENCE

  1. Atlanta
  2. Indiana
  3. Toronto
  4. Milwaukee
  5. Charlotte
  6. Chicago
  7. Miami
  8. Cleveland

I wrote “In the hunt” for both conferences but then there were no teams to put there. These are your 16 playoff teams, folks. Lock it up and prepare accordingly. See the rest of you (or whoever owns your picks) in the lottery.

 

ALL-STAR SELECTIONS

All-Star Weekend is almost here! Let’s get hype and pick the Real Deal All-Star team for the 2016-17 season. (To decide these lists I just looked at who’s scored the most points. Nice and easy.)

EAST

STARTERS

G: Russell Westbrook, IND
G: John Wall, WAS
F: Kevin Durant, CHI
F: Giannis Antetokuonmpo, MIL
F: LeBron James, CLE

RESERVES

Hassan Whiteside, CHI; Kyle Lowry, TOR; Rudy Gobert, IND; Kemba Walker, CHA; Carmelo Anthony, CLE; Draymond Green, CLE; Paul Millsap, ATL

A few interesting notes here: 1. Cleveland, a bottom seed in the playoffs, has three All-Stars. Atlanta, comfortably the best team in the league, barely has one. See, people, depth is important! There is also only one All-Star from a non-playoff team (Wall) and only two teams besides Cleveland have more than one All-Star (Chicago and Indiana).

WEST

STARTERS

G: James Harden, HOU
G: Stephen Curry, GS
F: DeMarcus Cousins, SAC
F: Anthony Davis, NO
F: Karl-Anthony Towns, SA

RESERVES

Andre Drummond, SA; Isaiah Thomas, PHO; Eric Bledsoe, NO; Jimmy Butler, POR; DeAndre Jordan, POR; Marc Gasol, MEM; Kawhi Leonard, SA

Seven of the 12 All-Stars belong to just three teams: New Orleans, San Antonio and Portland. Utah is the only playoff team without an All-Star. And Marc Gasol is the only All-Star not on a playoff team.

Real Deal Basketball Report: December 2016 Recap

December was a fairly quiet month. A few notable trades, a few minor changes in the standings, but no major excitement. Let’s take a look at the biggest stories from this month.

ORLANDO GIVES IN

Not that it was entirely their choice given how thin their roster was and how poorly they started, but the Magic are officially out of it this season after trading Vucevic and Gasol, two cornerstones of the team that was the best in the East in the league’s inaugural season two years ago. Let’s break down the two biggest trade of the month, both centered around the Orlando rebuild.

ORL receives: Derrick Favors and Utah’s 2018 1st round pick
UTAH receives: Nikola Vucevic and Orlando’s 2018 2nd round pick

This deal was essentially Vuc for Favors and a 1st round pick, making Orlando the clear long-term winner in this trade.

Vucevic’s role in the disastrously confusing Magic rotation is becoming more and more mysterious by the day, and he may not even end the season on the Magic roster (although that might be a good thing). He’s still a very productive player in this league because he averages a double-double (barely), but it’s worth noting that he’s scoring 5 or 6 fewer points per game than each of the last two seasons and is playing under 30 minutes a night for the first time since his rookie year. Still, again, he averages over 40 PPG so there can’t really be many complaints about this acquisition.

None of this, of course, is to say that Favors is any better. In fact, he’s been horrific this season and has missed a ton of games, and I’m sure Utah is glad to wash his hands of this player and not have to worry about wondering if he can ever put together a full good season. His minutes have been cut by about a third this year and there are questions if he can play PF next to Rudy Gobert, who, along with Gordon Hayward, is Utah’s most important player. This has forced him to occupy a backup role behind Gobert while Boris Diaw and the younger Trey Lyles, who fits the profile of a modern 4 much better than Favors does with his floor spacing ability. Still, Favors is just 25 and is on a very friendly contract. He’s one of the most inconsistent players in the NBA, but when he’s on, he’s on.

ORL receives: Terrence Ross, Demetrius Jackson, New York’s 2017 1st round pick
POR receives: Pau Gasol

This is a trade that makes sense for both sides, although Portland will miss Ross as a depth option. In Gasol, the Blazers get an aging and expensive star whose production is at its lowest ever.

However, they also get a significant talent upgrade. Gasol still gets double-doubles regularly and is unquestionably an upgrade in the starting eight over Ross. This was a good trade for the surging Blazers in their race for a top playoff seed, but one has to wonder if there were better options out there.

Orlando, on the other hand, gets a nice haul for a player they might have considered amnestying in the offseason. Ross remains an overall disappointment, but this year Dwayne Casey has found a very nice role for him. He’s playing fewer minutes but scoring more, and he’s finally shooting over 40% from three. Demetrius Jackson probably doesn’t amount to much more than a throw-in, but there was a point before the draft when many scouts projected he’d go in the lottery. He has talent but he’s in a terrible roster situation in Boston. Someone to keep an eye on and a nice lotto ticket for the Magic. The main piece here is the Knicks’ pick, which is almost guaranteed to be in the lottery, and this is possibly the most stacked draft class since 2003.

Overall, Orlando probably wins both trades. In the long run, Vuc for Favors might end up being a total wash, so Orlando wins because they get a pick out of it. Gasol only has a few years left at best and all three pieces the Magic got back for him have interesting potential. However, both Portland and Utah get significantly better this season because of these trades, and now they’re tied for first place in the Northwest with neither showing signs of slowing down. The drama!

 

PLAYOFF SPOTS SOLIDIFYING

We’re only two months in, but most of the playoff spots look to be locked down.

Especially in the West. There are exactly eight teams – San Antonio, New Orleans, Golden State, Portland, Utah, Houston, Phoenix and Sacramento – with winning records, and the rest are 10 games under .500 or worse.

So it’s basically a race for seeding at this point, with the Spurs remaining the favorites to end up on top – although they’ve been slipping a bit lately and the Pelicans are just one game behind. Man, what a race: Towns, Kawhi and Drummond vs. Davis, Kyrie and Embiid with Aldridge and Bledsoe playing major supporting roles for New Orleans. Whatever the order, they will likely end up 1 and 2.

Odds are Golden State will win the division and lock up the #3 spot, with Portland and Utah battling it out for the Northwest and ending up at 4 and 5.

That leaves the Kings, Suns and Rockets to duke it out for the last three spots. Sacramento in particular seems like they’re one or two good players away, now that Dirk is back, from challenging Golden State and surpassing the rest, including the Northwest duo.

In the East, things are a bit trickier (but not by much). There are nine teams with winning records, and all have decent arguments to make the postseason.

Let’s start with the locks. Toronto is in by default. Indiana, Chicago and Milwaukee (leading the division out of nowhere) are all too talented to miss, as are Atlanta and Charlotte.

That leaves two spots for Miami, Cleveland and Washington. All three of these teams are tough to project; all three could be a lot better with some TLC.

Cleveland has three amazing players in LeBron, Melo and Draymond – but, as I’ve been harping on them for for a year now, there is literally no other interesting player on the roster besides Morris.

Washington is in a similar situation, but only John Wall is playing at an elite level right now with Randle producing fairly nicely, as well. Things are extremely bad when you’re in the playoff hunt and Andre Roberson is your third best player.

Miami’s squad is by far the deepest, but one has to wonder how much success you can really achieve when Goran Dragic is your clear best player.

If I had to pick right now, I’d say Washington is the odd man out.

The rest of the inter-conference and inter-division races are way too close to call, especially Atlanta vs. Charlotte and the three-headed monster in the Central.

 

WISH LISTS

I think I did a new year’s resolution for each team last year or the year before, so why not make it an annual thing? Except a lot of teams are in a position where they don’t really need to actively change anything, so this year we’re getting holiday wish lists instead.

ATLANTA: Redick and Jackson have to get better for the Hawks to remain a title contender. They’re each struggling for very different reasons.
BOSTON: Nurkic gets traded away from the Nuggets and becomes a 10-10 starter.
BROOKLYN: The three dud top-10 picks from last year – Johnson, Hezonja and Cauley-Stein – get their damn acts together and earn some playing time.
CHARLOTTE: Atlanta gets bit by the injury bug.
CHICAGO: Aaron Gordon stops playing small forward 🙁
CLEVELAND: LeBron starts playing 48 minutes a game.
DALLAS: NERLENS NOEL GETS TRADED LITERALLY ANYWHERE
DENVER: A five-man bench mysteriously appears
DETROIT: JAHLIL OKAFOR GETS TRADED LITERALLY ANYWHERE
GOLDEN STATE: Barea gets healthy and returns to his regular mischief.
HOUSTON: Get transferred to the Atlantic.
INDIANA: Philly tanks.
LA CLIPPERS: Blake Griffin is unaffected by the surgery.
LA LAKERS: Blake Griffin is never the same after the surgery.
MEMPHIS: Flip Frazier, Gordon and Carroll for better long-term assets.
MIAMI: Dragic doesn’t get traded.
MILWAUKEE: Ibaka’s latest surge is not a fluke and he becomes an elite two-way player again.
MINNESOTA: Get massive hauls for Teague and Love.
NEW ORLEANS: The entire team makes it through the season with no injuries.
NEW YORK: Flip prospects and picks for win-now players and make a surprise playoff push.
OKLAHOMA CITY: Find out which prospects are worth keeping. Trade the rest and get into the 2017 draft in any capacity.
ORLANDO: Trade Nene, Tucker, etc. for literally anything.
PHILADELPHIA: Mudiay gets his act together.
PHOENIX: Knight gets traded, Westbrook averages a quintuple-double.
PORTLAND: The one or two more necessary trades are made and a title contender is confirmed.
SACRAMENTO: Dirk and Burks return to form.
SAN ANTONIO: Lin gets healthy for good and Chandler doesn’t get traded.
TORONTO: A move is made that simultaneously cuts salary and enables Beasley and Casspi to sit.
UTAH: Cody Zeller starts rebounding.
WASHINGTON: Everyone besides Wall and Randle move on and new youth comes in.

Real Deal Basketball Report: November 2016 Recap

One month in and this season has already been a doozy. We’ve had blockbuster trades, surprise teams and it’s actually looking like the playoff races in both conferences are going to be tight right down until the end.

 

TOP HEAVY…

There are three players that stand head and shoulders above the rest in Real Deal this season: Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Anthony Davis.

Westbrook is averaging an absolutely ridiculous 75.5 PPG. Hey, getting a triple-double every night will do that for you in this league. Westbrook’s silly usage rate of over 38% is the highest ever – EVER! – since the 2005-06 Kobe Bryant season. OKC has literally no other options offensively so I suppose it makes sense. Funnily enough, Russ’ blatant stat-padding is hurting his real-life team while helping out the Real Deal Suns in a major way. Aside from Westbrook, IT and Taj Gibson (yeah, that guy still), the Suns have little else to speak of in terms of production this year. The loss of a surprisingly resurgent Nick Young for the next few weeks will surely have Phoenix thinking of making a move to stay afloat in the Pacific, which is a bloodbath of a three-team race (sorry, LA teams). The Suns have scored the fifth-most points so far this season, but they lag behind in the overall standings, where they’re in 11th place (fifth in the West) and trail the Warriors by a couple of games.

Anthony Davis has been one of the many reasons that the Pelicans have surged from fringe playoff team to championship contender, averaging a cool 71 PPG. If he keeps up his averages – 32 PPG and 11 RPG – he’ll be the first NBA player to have a 30-point, 10-rebound season since Karl Malone in 1989-90. That’s pretty damn cool. The Pelicans – in a neck-and-neck race for the Southwest crown with San Antonio’s three-headed monster Kawhi, Drummond and Towns, are all healthy for the first time since the inception of the league and are accordingly firing on all cylinders. Davis is leading a behemoth of a team also comprised of Kyrie Irving, Eric Bledsoe and the Resplendent African Meme known as Joel Embiid, all averaging over 40 PPG. A second tier led by Aldridge and MKG are helping New Orleans to the third-highest point total thus far.

Harden, however, might not be enough to save the sinking ship that is the Rockets, despite averaging just under 70 PPG all on his own. It’s been a slow descent into mediocrity for Houston, who had the best record in the league two seasons ago, were the fifth seed in the West last year and are now fighting to get into the postseason this year. As things stand, the Rockets sit at 16th place – bang average – in the league and 8th in the West. Is it possible that Harden’s 28 PPG, 12 APG and 7 RPG won’t be enough for the playoffs? Aside from Harrison Barnes, the least efficient 20 PPG scorer in NBA history (needs citation), the rest of the team has been a disappointment.

 

…BOTTOM HEAVY

There are some teams that truly stink in this league, even if it was expected.

I’ll start with my own team. It stinks. Every single one of my sophomore players (Richaun Holmes excluded) have fallen on their faces and might never be good. None of my rookies are being given a shot, either. And the only players on my team who don’t fall into either category are Steven Adams, Noah Vonleh, Tyler Zeller and two Euro stash guys. Oy. This rebuild is going to take longer than I thought.

Such is the same in OKC, where the Thunder are still in for a hell of a fight to dig this team out of the trenches sometime this decade. There’s not much else to say, unfortunately: OKC is in dead last in every possible measurement and haven’t even scored half as many points this season as the 29th-place Nets. No one on this roster plays more than 14 minutes per game, and, to add insult to injury (or is that the other way around?), Jerryd Bayless got banged up just three games in.

Dallas has only won three games all year, but they have had to deal with the league’s fifth-toughest schedule. The Mavs became a lot younger this offseason than I think most people realized, and that’s probably part of why they’re struggling. Pair that with disappointing output from Mirotic, Crowder, Jokic and Noel’s injury, take away the draft pick and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

What the hell happened to Orlando? This team won the East easily in the inaugural season of Real Deal and now they’re 3-19. In some ways, this was sort of The Roster That Time Forgot. And by that I mean that their only good players at the end of last season were Vucevic and Pau Gasol, and no pieces of consequence were added. Greg Monroe was the #1 overall pick in the Real Deal expansion draft and now he has evaporated into thin air. Tyreke is still hurt (surprise surprise). Bender and Zubac are too young. And the rest of the team is made up of the ghosts of Jason Terry, Nene and a bunch of nobodies. It’s a good thing the Magic kept their pick this year as visions of Markelle Fultz, Josh Jackson and Harry Giles dance in their dreams like sad sugarplum fairies.

 

PORTLAND RISING

It took a while, but the Blazers are finally as good as they should have been in the first place. They lead the division fairly comfortably and sit at third in the West, a big jump from the first two seasons of Real Deal. The Porzingis-for-DeAndre trade still doesn’t make a ton of sense long-term, but it’s pretty much a wash at this point, especially with how good the rest of the team has been. Dame continues to be a bona fide superstar (good thing defense doesn’t count), and Jimmy Butler is carefully building his case as an MVP candidate. We’re still waiting on certain guys (Rodney Hood) to make that next step, and are close to giving up on several more (Terrence Ross, Meyers Leonard, Sauce Castillo). Portland is off to a rip-roaring start, but they might notice some teams catching up quickly if they don’t fill out the rest of this roster with players getting at least 30 PPG. Roy Hibbert and his 16 PPG aren’t good enough to start for a team that wants to compete for a title.

 

KD TO CHICAGO AND ITS IMPACT ON THE EAST

In the biggest blockbuster since year one of Real Deal, Kevin Durant was shipped off to the Windy City to help the Bulls rise to the top of the Central, Real Deal’s most competitive division this year, and ultimately knock off Atlanta and Charlotte for top spot in the conference.

To fully appreciate the significance of this trade, we need to rewind two years and change back in time, when KD and Westbrook both left OKC, changing the climate of the Western Conference for the next five years or more. Westbrook went to a Phoenix team that was utterly mediocre in year one, but has become a major threat in the West. The same has not been true in LA, where KD’s team has struggled.

In dynasty leagues, it’s almost never a good idea to trade sure-thing, proven superstars. We all know what happened to OKC after trading away the reigning NBA MVP. But for the Lakers, the return looks slightly more promising (and I mean very slightly, but still pretty bad considering how valuable Durant is). Jordan Clarkson and two lottery picks in a stacked draft, including the odds-on favorite for the #1 overall selection, is fair enough.

But the real story is how KD impacts his new team, the Chicago Bulls. Chicago had been putting together a decent year on the back of Hassan Whiteside and his 17 points and 15 rebounds per game. But given how competitive the Central has been this year, paired with disappointing output from guys like Rubio, Gordon and Harris, it was time to make a big move – and the Bulls made the biggest one possible.

Chicago might be the favorites to win the Central now, and that’s no short order. The Indiana Core of Young Super Mutants led by Paul George, the grizzled, 26-year-old veteran of the team, still holds bragging rights and sits atop the division fresh off a finals appearance – and to be honest, this team looks like an engine that won’t slow down for the next decade or so. Jason Kidd unleashing the hell on earth that is Giannis Antetokuonmpo at point guard in NBA basketball games has vaulted the Milwaukee Bucks out of anonymity and they’re right in the thick of things, too. Even the duds of the division are not to be brushed off. Cleveland still has LeBron, Dray and Melo, even if they have nothing else, and the surprisingly scrappy Pistons are enjoying great seasons from the scrap heap of NBA players like Ish Smith and Sean Kilpatrick. Oh, and no team in the division has a losing record.

But what might be even more interesting than the division race is how this newly ultra-powered Bulls team will fare against the other top competitors in the East; namely, Atlanta and Charlotte. Both of those teams roll eight or nine deep with players who score 30 or more points per game. They’re also both 18-4, two games above Chicago, and are 2nd and 5th overall in points scored.

Now the top of the East is an arms race. Are Atlanta or Charlotte threatened enough by the Bulls to make a move? Each team has enough young talent to attempt to wrestle a star way from a team who might want to blow it up as the season goes on.

If the season ended today, the playoff seedings would look like this:

  1. Atlanta (18-4)
  2. Charlotte (18-4)
  3. Toronto (17-5)
  4. Indiana (16-6)
  5. Chicago (16-6)
  6. Milwaukee (15-7)
  7. Miami (12-10)
  8. Cleveland (12-10)

So there’s a clear top 6. Chicago is on the rise. How will everyone else keep up?

 

SHOUT OUTS

Some shout outs to teams and players I didn’t get to cover this month:

Shout out to the Raptors. Gotta give it up to them, because even though they play in a trash division and have enjoyed the fourth easiest schedule, they’re still 17-5 and are 9th overall in points. DeMar DeRozan has played like an MVP and Kyle Lowry has looked really good lately after a putrid start. And it’s awesome seeing Vince Carter playing good basketball again.

Shout out to the San Antonio Spurs, who are the league’s best team so far at 20-2 and #1 in overall points. KAT, Kawhi and Drummond are a built-in 150 points per game and that’s enough to propel this team into at least the Conference Finals.

Shout out to Kevin Love. He’s playing his best ball in years and the Cavs have finally figured out how to play him with LeBron and Kyrie. Just get a team around him, Minny!

Shout out to Chris Paul, my choice for MVP this season until about a week ago.

Shout out to Joel Embiid for being the only rookie worth a damn this year (and he wasn’t even drafted this season).

Shout out to Kemba Walker, perhaps the most underrated player in the league.

Shout out to Otto Porter for finally being good.

Shout out to those of us trying to make trades in this league!

And that’s it. See you in January.

Division Previews: Western Conference

NORTHWEST DIVISION

1. UTAH JAZZ

This division is all Utah’s. Every player in the starting eight should be good for at least 30 points a game once Hayward and Zeller are back in full health. There are no star players here – the boring but always solid Horford and Hayward are probably as close as the Jazz get to that – but that doesn’t matter with depth like the type that Utah enjoys. This is a team that could finish very high in the West thanks to weak in-division competition.

 

2. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

Portland enjoys having two of the five Hooper family members.
Portland enjoys having two of the five Hooper family members.

Don’t look now, but this team might be a playoff contender. Reaping the benefits of the Aldridge trade, Portland already has a nice young core of Lillard and Butler. The acquisition of DeAndre Jordan means this team is in win-now mode, and with four 1sts next year, there are plenty of trade chips. Portland could use some more help in the supporting cast, which is pretty lacking outside of Rodney Hood. Regardless of what changes might be forthcoming for the Blazers, this is a team on the rise, and the decline of other teams in this division makes them a playoffs dark horse.

 

3. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

A team no longer in the business of winning division championships, the Wolves are looking for ways to get into the postseason again. Armed with a solid if not astounding core of Kevin Love and Jeff Teague, Minnesota has a lot on its roster in terms of end of the bench guys, but the supporting cast just isn’t anything special, or even average, at this point. Barring an unexpected surge from someone else, Minnesota’s third-best player this season will be either Jared Dudley or Jose Calderon. That’s just not good enough. Fortunately, though, Minnesota has some options here. If they decide to make a run, there are assets to be traded, including one of the two first round picks it owns and intriguing youngsters like the Powells and Kelly Oubre. If, however, they decide to hold off, there are plenty of veterans to auction off for picks and younger, cheaper guys. As presently constructed, the Wolves are just an ok team, but there’s a lot of flexibility here.

 

4. DENVER NUGGETS

Denver is about five good players away from being a contender, but what’s there is pretty good – at least in the backcourt. A trio of Booker, Smart and McCollum is a set-and-forget for at least the next 10 seasons at the top of the order. Beyond that, however, the Nuggets are lacking. Jaylen Brown, while exciting, is a total unknown as an NBA players. Faried may no longer be a double-double machine in Denver as the team continues to slowly phase him out. Horford’s arrival in Beantown mercifully sends Olynyk to the bench, and the talented Motiejunas is buried and unhappy in Houston. The entire bench could be cut and this team really wouldn’t be missing anything. This team is on the right track, but still very much in development.

 

5. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

The once-mighty Thunder are still reeling from a woeful 2015-16 season, during which OKC won just 1 single game. The Durant and Westbrook trades allowed OKC one season of success before rearing their ugly heads; now, it will take years for the Thunder to dig themselves out of this hole and become relevant again. The prognosis for 2016-17 remains grim, but the good news is that things are trending up – even if only a little bit. After a nice draft this month, the Thunder now have a young group that includes Bobby Portis, Tyler Ulis, Denzel Valentine, Furkan Korkmaz, Kay Felder and Cam Payne. None of those guys will develop into top players on a championship team, but it’s something. OKC’s mission this season is to get some more picks – they have no 1st rounders for the next two years and no picks at all next fall, which threatens to stall the rebuild significantly.

 

SOUTHWEST DIVISION

1. SAN ANTONIO SPURS

After taking over this team midway through the league’s first season, the Spurs lucked into the first pick and Karl-Anthony Towns, who is the best first overall pick since LeBron James. Combine KAT with Kawhi and Drummond and you have a lethal trio that should easily average 150 points per game by themselves. And even beyond those three, there’s a lot else to like here. Lin will be the showrunner for the Nets this season. Turner is a weird fit in Portland, but I can see it working. Dieng and Biyombo will collect double-doubles. Jennings and Booker are nice players to have on the bench. The Spurs are one of three teams I see vying for the top spot in the West.

 

2. NEW ORLEANS PELICANS

Trust the process!
Trust the process!

After two seasons of lying in wait, it’s finally time for the Pelicans to have a good season. Kyrie and AD have long been the cornerstone pieces of this franchise, and with midseason additions Eric Bledsoe and LaMarcus Aldridge, this team is looking really dangerous. The starting eight is rounded out by two high-upside players in Embiid (finally!) and MKG, and two very solid guards in Manu and CoJo. Plus, there’s Ben Simmons – but who knows if he’ll actually play this season. This team’s biggest problem will be injuries. AD is already banged up. I mentioned Simmons already. Bledsoe, MKG and Kyrie have all missed a lot of games over the past two years. And Embiid hasn’t played basketball in two years. If everything comes together, this team could be unstoppable. But that might be a big “if.”

 

3. HOUSTON ROCKETS

The Rockets finishing this low is no knock on them. The Southwest is by far the toughest division in the league this year and the two teams above them have just a little bit more juice. This is still a great team led by James Harden, who’s my MVP pick this season. I do have a few concerns about the rest of this team, however, though they are small. Can Deron Williams still be good? Will Barnes be a complete train wreck as a primary option? Will having three starters from the same team (Dallas) hurt the Rockets fantasy-wise? Will Joakim Noah stay healthy? Will Mozgov play under Luke Walton? Will anyone on the bench aside from Henderson contribute anything of consequence? I do think the Rockets will be just fine, but there are enough things about this roster that make me wonder if they can stay on top.

 

4. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

I never know what to say about this team because it’s always been so solid, and it appears they’ll remain so. It just sucks for them that the rest of this division is so good. The Grizzlies would be an easy playoff team in the East, but in the West’s Southwest Division, this team is going to take a pounding from the other top-tier teams. Injuries hampered their campaign last season, and now they’re without Eric Bledose, who’s off playing for a division rival. Still, much like the real Grizzlies, a team backed by Marc Gasol and Mike Conley should do pretty well. For Memphis to do really well, Carroll and Gordon are going to have to stay healthy and Green and Frazier will have to flourish in their new starting roles. Don’t know if I see any of that happening.

 

5. DALLAS MAVERICKS

I really hate ranking Dallas last, but the fact is that the Southwest is absolutely stacked. This team has a lot of really good young players like Noel, Crowder, Jokic and Mirotic, but there are too many unknowns in the starting eight for me to say that the Mavs will realistically be any better than San Antonio, New Orleans, Houston or Memphis. A backcourt of Seth Curry, James Ennis and Patrick McCaw doesn’t do much for me. Dallas might be able to make some moves, but more likely they just might have to ride out a long season.

 

PACIFIC DIVISION

1. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

There’s a lot of reason to think that the Warriors’ title defense will be pretty successful: namely, Steph Curry. Sure, he’ll score less, but with KD in town Curry will pile on more assists because Durant will make good on all the buckets Barnes would miss. He probably won’t score 30 a game anymore, but maybe he’ll average close to 10 assists. Klay’s value takes a hit with KD in town, but the rest of the starters can make up for that dip. KCP should have a big year as Detroit’s primary outside shooter, Plumlee continues to grow as a player, Teletovic will give much-needed spacing to Jason Kidd’s Bucks, Lopez is the only legitimate NBA player on the Nets, and Turner should make that next step sometime this season. The Middleton injury is a huge blow, and Golden State truly has no bench right now, but I don’t think that’s enough to stop them from emerging from the Pacific on top.

 

2. SACRAMENTO KINGS

The Kings might really need this year to be a big one. It’s the last time, probably, that they can count on Dirk and Wade to put up big numbers. They’re in great shape for this year, but it’s time to take the next step. Boogie is the kingpin for what should be a great team, and the supporting cast is quite good. Barton and Dellavedova were great pickups. Beal, if healthy, should continue to be very useful. Rudy Gay is a good fantasy player and that’s all I’ll say there. The bench, however, is seriously weak until Burks comes back. Sacramento might have to bulk up in order to stay near the top of the West, but either way, with Cousins in the middle, this is one of the league’s best teams.

 

3. PHOENIX SUNS

Russell Westbrook is going to absolutely light the world on fire this year, and that’s great news for the Suns, who might have the first player since the Big O to average a triple double (even if Westbrook’s come in the form of points, turnovers and missed 3s). Russ is truly where this team begins and ends: how successful the Suns are this year depends on how good he is. The rest of the squad, led by Thomas, Knight, Deng and a few decent bigs, can keep the Suns afloat if something goes wrong, but Russ is the key to this team reaching its full potential.

 

4. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

The Clippers are an interesting team. Much like the real Clippers, this might have to be this team’s last year rolling Blake and CP3 before some changes are made. Several off-season moves – such as their trade of next year’s pick and the signing of David West – send a message to the league that this team wants to win now. With this roster, I actually can see LA making some noise this year; the dynamic duo is backed by a slew of vets that include Korver, Frye, West and Lee, all of whom should produce reasonably this year. Josh Richardson is all that the team has in terms of youth, unless Luwawu or Onuaku have big rookie years out of nowhere. There’s a lot to like here – but there’s a lot more to like in Oakland, Sacramento and Phoenix.

 

5. LOS ANGELES LAKERS

How can a team that has Kevin Durant continue to underperform? I’m telling you, man, depth really matters in this league. The blockbuster deal that sent KD to LA ended up being a killer for both sides as the Lakers continue to struggle to put the right pieces around their superstar, whose fantasy value is taking a hit, by the way, playing next to Steph and Klay. Robin Lopez might end up being the Lakers’ second-best player. Tony Parker is still ok but has been declining for about five years. DRose could be a revelation in New York, or he could be a disaster. Nobody else on this team offers meaningful production. If I’m the Lakers, I try to get young quickly without letting go of Durant and start building an army, because this division is not getting any easier.

 

PLAYOFFS

1. GOLDEN STATE

2. SAN ANTONIO

3. SACRAMENTO

4. PHOENIX

5. UTAH

6. NEW ORLEANS

7. HOUSTON

8. PORTLAND

Division Previews: Eastern Conference

Basketball is finally almost here!

Let’s get to some predicting. Here, I give my guesses as to how the divisions will end up, and who makes the postseason.

 

ATLANTIC DIVISION

1. TORONTO RAPTORS

Toronto, for the third straight year, is going to walk into a division title just because it’s the only team in this division that isn’t a complete train wreck or deep in a rebuild. Lowry and DeRozan, as in real life, are a fine if not particularly riveting duo. Randolph and Gortat have historically been the leading second-tier contributors for the Raptors, but Gorat is in decline and Randolph is 35 and now coming off the bench in Memphis. And beyond that, Toronto doesn’t have too much going on. Ahead of a bench with no one particularly useful on it, the Raptors will be counting on big production from the likes of Dion Waiters, Patrick Patterson and Omri Casspi, which doesn’t sound too promising for Toronto’s playoff run – especially considering how good some other teams in the East are becoming.

 

2. NEW YORK KNICKS

New York made one of the biggest off-season trades by trading DeAndre Jordan for the younger hometown kid with more potential: Kristaps Porzingis. A great move for the Knicks, which sets a foundation for them to stay relevant down the road in a division with three long-term redevelopers while simultaneously remaining the second best team in the Atlantic. If things go really wrong in the East’s other two divisions, this team might even sniff at a playoff spot – but don’t count on it. A couple of New York’s role players – Patty Mills, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Joe Johnson – could help the Knicks spoil some games, and there is a slew of promising rookies also present on the roster. This team could be pretty interesting in a couple of years.

 

3. BROOKLYN NETS

My team would finish dead last in any other division, but here we are in the Atlantic, where sub-mediocrity is just part of the brand. Fantrax projects the Nets to have five players put up 24 points per game or more this season, which is actually more than any other team in the division, even the Raptors. Brooklyn is still very much in rebuild mode, but the lack of competition within the Atlantic might push this team over 35 wins and spoil another chance at a high draft pick.

 

4. BOSTON CELTICS

Boston's playoff odds.
Boston’s playoff odds.

Still a long way to go for the Celtics, too. Russell is a franchise point guard and Winslow will be great for a long time in the NBA, but there are still so many holes on this team. Nurkic, Poeltl, Jones and Anderson are pieces worth holding onto, but you can pretty much scrap the rest of this roster. The Celtics missed out on a high draft pick after a stinker season last year, but they should have another pick in the top 5 next fall.

 

5. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

Philly’s new owner has done an admirable job so far of trying to make this team’s future a bit brighter, but for now, this team still stinks. Mudiay will produce fantasy numbers this year, but beyond that, I don’t think any of these players will do anything meaningful this season, except maybe Allen Crabbe. The 76ers had a ton of draft picks this year, but aside from Marquese Chriss, will any of them pan out? I love Diallo’s game, but he’s still a gamble. Brogdon, Papagiannis and Niang are all very low-ceiling, as are other prospects like McDaniels, Bertans and Robinson. Having no 1sts in 2017 hurts this team’s rebuild in a major way and it could be a long few years for the 76ers.

 

 

CENTRAL DIVISION

1. CHICAGO BULLS

I’m not as bullish (pun intended) on this team as I was last year, but I do think they should win the division again. Players 1-8 on this team are all really good, with Asik and Len possibly being exceptions. The rising cap has saved Chicago and given the Bulls a little bit of wiggle room to add some sorely-needed bench depth. Livingston is solid, Abrines could be nice, but I’m not sold on anyone else here. Parsons will be a big addition when he comes back, but when will that be? Regardless, Chicago has the best starting lineup in the Central and should repeat as champs, unless some of Indiana or Milwaukee’s young guys make a big step up this season.

 

2. INDIANA PACERS

Indy shocked the league by making the finals last season, riding hot streaks from its young core. The Pacers don’t have much to worry about – that young core is still the best in the league. However, I do think this team is still a year or two away from sustaining consistent greatness over a full season. A look up and down this roster speaks for itself and I’ve written a ton about this in the past: This is a team built for long-term success. Will they get lucky in the playoffs again?

 

3. MILWAUKEE BUCKS

I was down on the Bucks last season, but recent developments have made this team really interesting – first and foremost, the miraculous emergence of Point Giannis, who might be a top 10 fantasy player this season and is a 21-year-old, 7-foot-tall point forward (NOT A POINT GUARD. STOP SAYING THIS!). Ibaka’s move to Orlando removes him from the role of understudy and will probably make him the focal point on offense for the Magic. Oladipo leaving town will open up a ton of room for Payton to play more effectively and have shooters around him. Solomon Hill will be starting (lol) for the Pelicans. Thad Young will be counted on in Indiana. The Bucks had just one 2nd round pick this year and no more picks until 2018, but fortune may have bought this team a few more good years. The Bucks don’t have many trade pieces to build some depth, which would go a long way, so that limits them a bit this season, but they could make the playoffs.

 

4. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

Man, what happened here? Cleveland began this league as the prohibitive favorite. Now? LeBron is still LeBron, but expect him to play a lot less this year now that he’s finally won a title for his hometown team. Melo might be washed. Green is still great, but KD coming to Golden State will probably push him to play center a lot more and thus have the ball in his hands less frequently. And beyond that big three, there’s not a single player I like here. Morris is still a head case and Pachulia is a terrible fit for the Warriors and will probably get phased out pretty quickly. Maybe the big three will be enough to carry Cleveland to the playoffs, but maybe not.

 

5. DETROIT PISTONS

Things are not looking great in Motor City after the Andre Drummond trade. Detroit got a lot of picks out of it, but Jahlil Okafor might never be given a chance to put up numbers again and this team doesn’t have a lot of help elsewhere. There are some intriguing youngsters – Hield, McDermott, Hernangomez, Muhammad, Nance – but they’re all still a number of years away from big production and this team’s best fantasy player is Tristan Thompson. Could be a long season for Detroit.

 

SOUTHEAST DIVISION

1. ATLANTA HAWKS


This is still Atlanta’s division until someone comes and takes it from them. Depth is still this team’s biggest issue, although the new ownership deserves some credit for assembling some at least decent backups. (Last year’s owner, if you’ll recall, rode the league’s best starting 8 [put together by another – nameless – GM] all the way to the league’s best record and a nice cash prize.) Much of the Hawks’ success will be determined by how three big names – Rondo, Howard and Oladipo – perform on their new teams. Paul Millsap is the league’s most underrated player, both in real life and fantasy, and is easily a top-10 all-around, two-way NBA player. Luckily for Atlanta, all three relocations seem for now to be of benefit to the players in question. Atlanta is poised for another good year, but they’ve got to continue sculpting this roster if long-term success is on the agenda.

2. CHARLOTTE HORNETS

Charlotte was the most unexpectedly good team of last season, and there’s a chance they can be even better this year. It’s likely they can even push Atlanta for the division crown and make another deep playoff run. Kemba and Bazemore both had career years last season; they’ll need to keep that up. Capela, Bogut and Kanter all figure to have increased offensive roles in their new situations. Warren and Porter have to develop and produce this year, and many think they will. Bradley and Aminu are rock solid. Anything the Hornets get from Jefferson, Wroten and MCW is gravy. Plus, that salary cap nightmare is finally sorted out – even if it took a leaguewide bailout. Keep an eye on this squad.

 

3. MIAMI HEAT

Goran want 2nd place, not 3rd.
Goran want 2nd place, not 3rd.

Miami, largely due to the fierce competitiveness of the division, has always been a team on the cusp of the playoffs. This year, I think the Heat can make a leap forward. There are some nice pieces here, starting with Dragic and Collison, who are literally the only competent point guards on their respective teams and will thus play a lot. Valanciunas may take a big step up this season. Iggy, Crawford, Morris and Fournier are money in the bank. Bogdanovic could be a secret weapon. Given the declining state of the Southeast, Miami may be poised for a nice season. And I’m not even considering Chris Bosh.

4. WASHINGTON WIZARDS


From a championship in season 1 to missing the playoffs last year, the Wizards will finish this season with answers that are currently unknown. Are Wall and Randle a good enough one-two punch to repeat as title contenders? Has the competition in the Southeast cooled off enough for this team to have sustained success? Just how dire is the issue of depth with this team? I take a long look at this team’s rotation players – Andre Roberson and his one career good offensive game, Jeff Green and his inconsistent production, Mike Scott and his $23 million contract, the ghost of Tyson Chandler – and I can’t help but think it’s going to be a long year in the capitol. The Wizards might be on the downswing, and looking back, that Bradley Beal trade hurts if that’s the case (Washington did get three 1sts in the deal, but two of those are already made [the low-ceiling Domantas Sabonis and the what the heck is this guy Skal Labissiere], and the other one is two years away).

5. ORLANDO MAGIC

This team's in so much trouble that they get a watermarked stock photo.
This team’s in so much trouble that they get a watermarked stock photo.

This is a team in crisis mode. Despite a stacked front line, the one-mighty Magic are suddenly staring at an immense uphill battle to reclaim glory for the city of Orlando. One look at the roster is all you need to get a sense of where this franchise is. Orlando will quickly have to flip some pieces for a couple of guards, or they’re staring a Steve Blake – Jason Terry – Kevin Martin – Tayshaun Prince starting lineup dead in the face – and three of those guys aren’t even on an NBA team. Trading high-intrigue pieces like Dragan Bender, Ivica Zubac, Tyreke Evans and some picks may be the only way out of dire straits, unless the Magic decide to hope for the best in free agency this season. There’s a lot of work to be done here, and it’s gotta be done fast.

 

PLAYOFFS

1. ATLANTA

2. CHARLOTTE

3. CHICAGO

4. INDIANA

5. TORONTO

6. MIAMI

7. MILWAUKEE

8. CLEVELAND

Real Deal Report: 2016 Draft Recap

So, this is a little bit late, I apologize. But I do actually have an excuse because I moved to a new state at the beginning of the month and the job search has been priority one. Taking a break today to do this.

With the 2016 draft complete, it’s time to sit back and get ready for the season after a long few months of no NBA basketball. But first, let’s take a quick look back at all 60 picks from the weekend’s draft.

Last year, I gave draft grades to teams, but there were too many that either had like 10 picks or no picks at all. So this year I’m grading pick by pick.

 

1. New Orleans Pelicans: Ben Simmons
Grade: A
Even with the news that Simmons is going to miss two months or more, this was the obvious pick. Simmons is a potential generational talent and could be the best player in the NBA in five years. He’s ideal from a fantasy perspective, too, because of his ability to rack up triple doubles. Adding Simmons to a base foundation of Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving and Joel Embiid gives New Orleans a crop of potential mega-stars – that is, if they can all stay healthy and reach their potential.

2. Brooklyn Nets: Brandon Ingram
Grade: A
This was also an obvious pick. Ingram is rail thin and will get bullied in his rookie season, but he’s the best pure scorer in this draft and I don’t think the Durant comparisons are too far off base. Ingram becomes the centerpiece for a team whose supporting cast is slowly becoming better and better.

3. Indiana Pacers: Kris Dunn
Grade: A
Yet another obvious pick. Dunn is an ideal replacement for Mudiay and clearly the third best player in this draft. He’s also someone who can step in right away and start producing results for a Pacers team that made the finals last year after finishing dead last in year one. Even if Thibs hates rookies, it’s only a matter of time before Dunn replaces Rubio as the starting PG for the Timberwolves, which is coincidentally a young team rapidly on the rise just like these Pacers.

4. Detroit Pistons: Buddy Hield
Grade: A-
I’ll be honest: at first, I hated this pick. I think Hield is supremely overrated as a basketball player and that he can’t do much besides shoot. But the more I thought about it, the more the pick grew on me. The Pelicans are going to be a disaster again this season so they’ll be bound to let Hield loose and see what they’ve got in him. Clearing out Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson will leave a lot of 3s open for Hield.

5. Orlando Magic: Dragan Bender
Grade: A-
I’m actually one of the few people that doesn’t think Bender needs a few more years of development before he can make an impact. His basketball IQ is NBA-level already and his skills are pretty advanced for a teenager. But I hate, hate, hate his situation. Drafting Bender and Chriss just seems like a careless experiment to see who their future PF will be. Neither of them can play any other position yet – Bender because he’s too slim and weak to play C and Chriss because his defense is horrendous. Outside of Simmons and Ingram, I think Bender has the most potential in this draft class, but I was a bit surprised to see Orlando pick him over someone who will make a more immediate impact.

6. Dallas Mavericks: Jamal Murray
Grade: A
There were four guys at the top of this draft that I thought stood out as the players with the most potential by a wide margin over the rest of the class: Simmons, Ingram, Bender and Murray. This kid can straight up ball, folks, and he has confidence in spades and the ability to score in bunches. The Nuggets have a great young guard rotation with Mudiay and Harris starting and Murray and Barton behind them. I’m not convinced Murray and Barton can coexist because their usage is so similar, and I’m also not convinced that Murray can ever be a point guard in this league. But Murray has star written all over him, and those guys usually figure out a way to succeed. Great pick by Dallas.

7. Oklahoma City Thunder: Denzel Valentine
Grade: C
A bit of a reach. The Bulls are going to be a mess that is going to take a long time to figure out, and I’m not sure here Valentine ultimately settles in. Hoiberg will love his high basketball IQ and passing ability from anywhere on the court, but his ceiling as a fantasy player is limited and he has a lot of guys ahead of him on the depth chart. For an OKC team that is rebuilding from the ground up, I respect the decision to go for a solid player here rather than a high-risk, high reward type, but there were guys on the board who would’ve been a better choice, I think.

8. New York Knicks: Thon Maker
Grade: B+
The enigma! Is he 19 or 35? It might not matter because he may end up being the starting center for the Bucks on opening night. We all remember this kid (adult?) from his insane mixtape a few years ago, but unfortunately he hasn’t really progressed much in terms of skills since then. Maker remains, for the most part, a soul that occupies an ideal basketball body but just doesn’t quite know how to play the game. Jason Kidd doesn’t exactly strike me as a top-notch talent development guy, but there’s no question that Maker fits in with the Bucks’ wacky all-limbs lineup. Maker’s potential is sky-high, but it actually has to start manifesting itself pretty soon or this is not such a great pick. For now, given his potential, I think it was an all right choice.

9. Denver Nuggets: Jaylen Brown
Grade: A-
Brown also kind of fits the mold of having supreme talent with not so supreme basketball skills and IQ. He is a phenomenal athlete but at this point he can’t do much beyond driving to the bucket, and even then his finishing is pretty subpar. He finds himself in a perfect situation in Boston, where Brad Stevens will have time to mold and teach him.

10. Philadelphia 76ers: Marquese Chriss
Grade: A
This is a good pick based on potential alone. The most explosive player in the draft, Chriss is yet another guy who has yet to put it all together and play basketball properly. He’s got time in Phoenix, but it’s worth monitoring this guy and seeing if anything happens there this season. His ceiling may be Shawn Kemp, but his floor is Thomas Robinson.

11. Washington Wizards: Domantas Sabonis
Grade: A-
Would have liked to see the Wizards go for a wing player here, where they need help the most, but adding a presence as solid as Sabonis to their transforming core seems like a good move. Much like the real Wizards, Washington surprisingly plummeted out of the playoffs and suddenly doesn’t have much talent on the roster besides Wall and Beal (OK, and Julius Randle). Sabonis doesn’t strike me as an ace fantasy player, but this is far from the worst pick so far.

12. Dallas Mavericks: Juancho Hernangomez
Grade: A
Juancho Man Randy Savage will probably end up being the Nuggets’ backup 4 to start the year, and could quickly become the starter if Denver trades Faried. A skilled stretch 4 with good all-around talent, Hernangomez would be a nice fit anywhere.

13. Sacramento Kings: Wade Baldwin
Grade: A
Being Mike Conley’s understudy will be great for Wade Baldwin, who runs the risk of becoming just a defensive specialist if he doesn’t have the chance to learn to play offense. It might behoove him to become a 2 and play alongside Conley, taking over the Tony Allen role. Either way, this guy is a monster physically for a guard and a really fun player to watch. Memphis kind of seemed like his destiny to keep the grit and grind alive for one more year.

14. Boston Celtics: Jakob Poeltl
Grade: B-
I don’t like this pick and I don’t like Poeltl as a player. Watch his game against Sabonis in the NCAA Tournament to see why. I think Poeltl’s ceiling is pretty low and I don’t see him getting a lot of playing time in Toronto, at least right away.

15. New York Knicks: Caris LeVert
Grade: B-
At this point in the draft, all of the actual good players were gone, so any pick looks like a reach here, but this one was a bit of a head-scratcher. Caris LeVert is made of glass and, despite what you hear from most analysts, does not have lottery talent. He’s an old school style player that doesn’t fit ideally in the modern NBA and Brooklyn isn’t exactly the most nurturing environment. Maybe this pick pans out, but for now I don’t see it.

16. Memphis Grizzlies: Taurean Prince
Grade: B+
I like this pick for Memphis. It gives them another DeMarre Carroll type player and is just overall very solid. Fits in well with the rest of the Grizzlies’ squad of solid but not flashy players.

17. New York Knicks: Henry Ellenson
Grade: B
Will Henry Ellenson ever make it in the NBA? I’m not sure. His skills are enticing – a legit 7 footer who can shoot threes is always of interest – but his defense will likely never be NBA level and his game has a long way to go. This pick was purely a prospective one for New York, as Ellenson isn’t going to get any playing time this year in Detroit behind Harris, Morris, Leuer, Drummond, Baynes and Boban.

18. Orlando Magic: Ivica Zubac
Grade: A+
One of the best picks in this year’s draft. Zubac is already a tenacious post player and a solid defender down low who will grow into a perfect player to complement the Lakers’ young big trio of Ingram, Russell and Randle. I would have taken Zubac in the top 10, and for Orlando to get him here at 18 was a coup. Luke Walton won’t hesitate to put this guy in ahead of Tarik Black and Timo Mozgov (seriously, why is this guy on this team?).

19. Oklahoma City Thunder: Tyler Ulis
Grade: A
I freaking love this pick by OKC. Ulis is a straight up baller who would have been a top 5 player in this year’s draft if he wasn’t 5’8″. His height didn’t stop him in college, but it will obviously be a greater obstacle in the NBA. Still, Ulis is a terrifically smart basketball player who’s lightning quick and is a phenomenal passer and floor general who can also shoot threes. Ulis will have a long and successful NBA career.

20. Los Angeles Clippers: Timothe Luwawu-Caborrot
Grade: B-
I’m not a huge fan of Luwawu. His game has a long way to go and he may never surpass a Thabo Sefolosha type of role. He also has the misfortune of being stuck in the Philly logjam behind Covington, Henderson, Grant, Thompson and Stauskas. A lot of people think he can turn into a very nice three-and-D guy, but I just don’t see it.

21. Houston Rockets: Jake Layman
Grade: D
The first pick in this draft that really took me by surprise. Layman may not even make Portland’s roster and was a mid second round pick. There are rumblings that Layman can eventually turn into a Chandler Parsons type, but I think that’s a longshot. If he does make the roster, there aren’t really any minutes for him behind Turner, Crabbe, Aminu, Harkless, Davis and Vonleh. I think Houston would have been better off trading this pick to help shore up its thinning bench.

22. Sacramento Kings: DeAndre Bembry
Grade: B
A safe pick, if not an inspired one. Bembry was a late riser in the draft this year and is probably not a first round talent, but he does figure to be a solid bench piece. Sort of a poor man’s Denzel Valentine, he can do a little bit of everything including passing, shooting and rebounding. There were definitely worse things to do with this pick.

23. Minnesota Timberwolves: Damian Jones
Grade: A-
Nice grab for the Wolves here. Jones is a really nice defensive center who probably won’t be asked to do much this year, but could find his way into some playing time if Zaza doesn’t work out (he kind of doesn’t fit what the Warriors are all about), McGee stinks as usual and Varejao gets hurt (he will). He’ll grow into a really good backup center in time.

24. San Antonio Spurs: Dejounte Murray
Grade: A
I really like this choice by the Spurs, who are a guard away from title contention. Not that Murray is that guard, but it’s a nice gamble: low-risk, high reward. If anyone can make use of Murray’s wild game, it’s Popovich.

25. Philadelphia 76ers: Cheick Diallo
Grade: A+
Home run of a pick. Diallo has always had lottery talent, but because he didn’t fit in Bill Self’s system, the entire NBA forgot about him. Sure, he looked horrible at Kansas, but the physical profile is there. He’s an explosive leaper who shows a ton of promise as a shot blocker and rim runner, but one thing many people don’t know about him is that he also has a pretty sweet short range jumper that’s in development. Diallo was the definition of post-hype sleeper in this year’s draft and I think he’s a great piece.

26. Dallas Mavericks: Patrick McCaw
Grade: A+
Great pick. Golden State quietly lost significant guard depth this offseason, so there’s a good chance McCaw plays a lot – especially when the Warriors are winning by 40 at halftime. McCaw is a smart defensive 2 guard who can handle the ball a bit and could emerge as a garbage time king, especially if he improves his jumper.

27. Washington Wizards: Skal Labissiere
Grade: B
I had hope that there was still something left for Labissiere’s potential until he got drafted by Sacramento. Now, I think you can more or less scratch him off. The guy looked clueless on the basketball court in Kentucky, despite (or maybe because of) people calling him a better prospect than Ben Simmons this time last year. There were a few guys Washington could’ve taken here that would provide more immediate help, but this is still an ok value pick if you believe in Skal still.

28. Oklahoma City Thunder: Kay Felder
Grade: A+
Another pick by OKC that I absolutely love. Like Ulis, Felder would be a lottery talent if he wasn’t such a li’l guy. Unlike Ulis, however, Felder possesses immense athleticism and explosiveness: he posted the second highest vertical leap EVER in the history of the combine at 44 inches. That’s almost four freaking feet in the air and like a foot and a half lower than the top of his head. Beyond that, he’s also a smart player and a good floor general. And beyond that, he’s poised to be Cleveland’s backup PG this year. Terrific selection by OKC. Plus, have you ever seen this guy dribble a basketball? It’s awesome. He like slams it into the ground with each dribble like he’s mad at it. He looks like this dude:

29. Indiana Pacers: Deyonta Davis
Grade: A+
Slam dunk of a pick. Davis is perhaps the best defensive player in the draft class but fell to round 2 because he underperformed at Michigan State. He should have been drafted a lot higher and I’m surprised he fell so far in this draft, too.

30. Toronto Raptors: Pascal Siakam
Grade: B
Siakam is one of those African dudes with amazing athletic skills that only started playing basketball when he was like 16. Despite that, he shows pretty good fundamentals, but his game is definitely still centered around his hustle and athleticism. Toronto is really hurting for a PF with Patterson and Sullinger as their only options right now, so they might be hoping to get something from Siakam soon, but his skill level right now is more suited for the D League.

31. Detroit Pistons: Malcolm Brogdon
Grade: B
Brogdon is a really solid player, especially defensively, but I’m not high on him as a fantasy player; he may never be more than a defensive stopper. Still, though, his basketball IQ is top notch – that combined with his defense will get him on the court for this inexperienced Bucks team. Overall a decent selection.

32. Brooklyn Nets: Isaiah Whitehead
Grade: A
The Nets apparently loved this guy so much that they traded up for him, and their guard situation is so bleak that he will probably be on the floor a lot this season. His competition – Greivis Vasquez, Randy Foye, Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, Sean Kilpatrick, Yogi Farrell and Chase Budinger – don’t exactly put fear in one’s heart. With good coaching, he can carve out a career for himself as a volume bench scorer.

33. Philadelphia 76ers: Georges Niang
Grade: C+
Rumor has it that the Pacers want to use Niang this season, but I don’t buy it. He’s a low ceiling guy who will make the roster, but I really don’t see him playing much. He’s slow and unathletic, which is kind of the opposite direction the Pacers are moving in, but he can shoot 3s which is always good. A second rounder is never going to make or break a team’s future but I think there were better guys here.

34. New York Knicks: Brice Johnson
Grade: A
Really nice value pick. Doc Rivers might have no choice to play this guy because of his elite rebounding skills, even with veterans Mbah a Moute and Bass in front of him. The Clippers’ likely tendency to go small might push him further down the pine, but Johnson will eventually be a rotation player somewhere.

35. Boston Celtics: Malik Beasley
Grade: A-
I don’t know how the hell Beasley gets any playing time this year, but he’s a good prospect. In the right situation he can become a useful 3 and D guard.

36. Los Angeles Clippers: Chinanu Onuaku
Grade: B
Not a bad pick. Onuaku is a classic defense-first energy big. He’s a significantly undersized center with raw (read: bad) offensive skills, so there’s a chance he might not stick on a roster in the NBA, but if he can run, D’Antoni might give him a shot. Plus, he shoots his free throws grandma style:

37. Los Angeles Lakers: Ron Baker
Grade: B+
Baker is a longshot to make it in the NBA from a talent perspective, but actually seems poised to make the Knicks roster. My guess is that Baker will fall somewhere between Linsanity and whatever it was that Jimmer Fredette did for the Knicks that one time.

38. Philadelphia 76ers: Georgios Papagiannis
Grade: C+
This was a throwaway pick for the Kings, but it’s just whatever for Philly. Papagiannis should have gone undrafted and has no NBA talent to speak of beyond his monstrous size.

39. Denver Nuggets: Guerschon Yabusele
Grade: A+
Five years from now, I think Yabusele could be one of the best 10 players from this draft. The dude is an animal. Unfortunately he’ll spend this season overseas. He’s a bruiser with an elite build and physicality, and possesses a nice jumper and even flashes some ball handling skills, even as most of his game is in development. One of my favorite picks in this draft.

40. Toronto Raptors: Fred Van Vleet
Grade: D
Toronto’s next pick was so good, but this one was very much not so. Van Vleet has looked terrible in preseason and is the fifth point guard for Toronto at this point behind Lowry, Joseph and Delon Wright and Brady Heslip, although even that doesn’t really matter because no PG plays beyond Joseph. I’ll be surprised if he makes the Raptors’ final roster.

41. Toronto Raptors: Furkan Korkmaz
Grade: A+
How the hell did this guy fall so far? A lottery talent for sure, and at 18, he’s got lots of room to grow. When he comes to the NBA, he’ll be a lights-out shooter, and he’s also a pretty good athlete. A middle-class version of Mario Hezonja.

42. Toronto Raptors: Ante Zizic
Grade: A
Another nice value pick. Zizic balled out in the Adriatic League last season and is pegged for another season abroad. Great stash guy.

43. Brooklyn Nets: Malachi Richardson
Grade: B
Richardson’s game is all over the place, and he probably only went in the first round because of his tournament performance, but I think this was an ok pick based on value. The Kings roster is a crime against basketball so there’s plenty of room to carve out a role.

44. Washington Wizards: Diamond Stone
Grade: B-
Diamond Stone is a lot like Greg Monroe: a small-ish center who doesn’t defend, doesn’t rebound very well and doesn’t score outside the paint. In other words, a dinosaur. And we all know Doc Rivers doesn’t let rookies play. Many considered Stone a first round talent, but I think the game may have just passed him by. We’ll see.

45. Oklahoma City Thunder: AJ Hammons
Grade: A
Another ace pick by OKC. I freaking love Hammons as a prospect. He’s 23 already, but this dude is a monster physically and can eventually become a starting-level center for a defensive-minded team. Really nice rebounder and shot blocker with an elite physical profile.

46. Memphis Grizzlies: Paul Zipser
Grade: A-
Really nice pick. Zipser has borderline first round talent but fell because he’s 22 and from Europe. Chicago actually gave him a guaranteed deal, so he’ll be on the roster, but I doubt he plays much. From a value perspective, though, this was a good pick.

47. Milwaukee Bucks: Michael Gbinije
Grade: C+
Gbinije is an extremely physical and athletic kid, but he’s already 24 and has no discernable basketball skills, although Syracuse tried using him as a ballhandler with mixed results. A D League stash for now, but I’m not sure he’s a guy who pans out.

48. Portland Trail Blazers: Isaiah Cousins
Grade: A-
I like this pick. Sacramento’s other PGs are Ty Lawson, Jordan Farmar and the suspended Darren Collison. Cousins is nothing special but he could end up getting minutes.

49. Indiana Pacers: Zhou Qi
Grade: A
Love this pick. Qi is another guy with questions about his real age, but I think this guy is super talented and may have star potential. A mobile big who can shoot 3s and block shots, Qi needs to bulk up before he can play in the NBA but I think he can eventually become a bigger, faster Channing Frye who can protect the rim. Qi is a first round talent in my book and I would have drafted him at 1.22 if I didn’t end up trading that pick.

50. Los Angeles Lakers: Ben Bentil
Grade: B
Solid grab here. Bentil is an extremely foolhardy player but does have some talent. He’s a D Leaguer for now but could turn into a bench piece some day.

51. Minnesota Timberwolves: Alex Poythress
Grade: C
Poythress has proven at this point that he doesn’t hold any promise as an NBA player.

52. Cleveland Cavaliers: Gary Payton II
Grade: B
I don’t think The Mitten will pan out in the NBA, but it was worth taking him on potential alone.

53. Minnesota Timberwolves: Cat Barber
Grade: A+
Barber is the biggest sleeper in this draft. This guy might immediately challenge John Wall to claim the title of NBA’s fastest player if he sticks on the roster, which is looking fairly likely. Cat’s game is reminiscent of Ish Smith’s, and we all know how well that went fantasy-wise when Smith was a Sixer. Barber might have to spend some time in the D League, but I really hope Philly gives this guy a shot. I think he can turn into a useful bench scorer in the NBA.

54. Toronto Raptors: Drew Crawford
Grade: F
This pick ended up getting dropped anyway so I don’t mind saying it was the worst one in this draft. A 26-year-old from Northwestern doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

55. Charlotte Hornets: Joel Bolomboy
Grade: A
Bolomboy figures to be kind of a poor man’s Kenneth Faried in the NBA, and the Jazz seem like a good fit. It’s doubtful he’ll play much for Utah but I still like this pick based on his ability to run and rebound.

56. Portland Trail Blazers: Demetrius Jackson
Grade: A
Late in the NCAA season, scout were saying Jackson was a lottery pick. But then he fell to the 2nd round. Jackson ended up in a terrible situation in Boston behind Thomas, Smart, Bradley and Terry Rozier but remains a very good prospect with elite speed, exposiveness and scoring ability. Great value pick, even if it takes a few years for him to end up in a better spot.

57. Denver Nuggets: Petr Cornelie
Grade: B
No complaints about this pick. Cornelie is a sort of fringe NBA guy but has decent potential. Will probably spend the next few years overseas.

58. Oklahoma City Thunder: Jameel Warney
Grade: B-
Warney is an ok pick here, but it probably would have been better for the rebuilding OKC to grab someone younger with a bit more potential instead of a senior from a small school.

59. Indiana Pacers: Gracin Bakumanya
Grade: B
Full disclosure: I have no idea who this guy is. But he’s 19, 6’11” and has a 7’3″ wingspan. So that’s what the picks in the late 2nd are all about: just take a guy on pure potential. If it doesn’t work out, no biggie.

60. Brooklyn Nets: Stephen Zimmerman
Grade: A
Did people just forget about this guy because his name is at the end of the alphabet? He’s a 7-foot 20-year-old with a 9’1″ standing reach and was a top-10 high school recruit who can shoot 3s and block shots. No idea how this guy almost went undrafted, and I’m happy to have him.