NBA Offseason Predictions for Each Team: Eastern Conference

The results of the NBA Finals came as a surprise to pretty much nobody. The Warriors asserted their league-wide dominance and whether their winning ways are fair or not, the race has begun to catch up to them. This NBA offseason should prove to be extremely interesting, given the big names that could be on the move. Here is a prediction for every team in the Eastern Conference in regards to how they will look to shake up their roster.

Eastern Conference

Atlantic Division

Toronto Raptors: I don’t think the Raptors are going to blow it up. Almost their entire roster that achieved the first seed in the Eastern Conference this past season will be returning next year, and there are simply too many positives to take away for them to make any drastic decisions. Their first priority will be looking to re-sign Fred VanFleet, who turned in an impressive performance in his second season. My prediction is that the Raptors will look to deal Serge Ibaka away in a move that will clear up much-needed cap space for a third star. Toronto’s window shrinks every year, with Kyle Lowry approaching the age of 33. After making room for a third man, I can see Toronto make a move for a young, promising power forward that would be effective in a small-ball lineup and could also potentially take the reins once they fall short of expectations again. Aaron Gordon fits the bill, but the Magic are likely to match any offer for the restricted free agent, so he should be staying put. Toronto will settle for Julius Randle.

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Boston Celtics: Boston is more poised for future success than any other team in the NBA. With three all-star caliber players locked up for next season, two players on rookie deals who look like they could be future all-stars and Scary Terry, the Celtics have plenty of talent to ride with for next year. Their only two needs this summer are to re-sign defensive stud Marcus Smart, and to find themselves a center. Al Horford can slot himself into the 5 in small-ball lineups and will likely start at center when everyone is healthy, but a trustworthy natural big man is necessary in order to stack up against bigger opposing lineups. They could re-sign Greg Monroe or Aron Baynes, but will they ask for more money than the Celtics could afford? I can expect Smart to willingly take a pay-cut to stay with the squad, but man bun could seek a contract elsewhere for a more expanded role. You can bet that Danny Ainge will be making calls to New Orleans to inquire about Anthony Davis, but that would be tough to execute, and Ainge wouldn’t want to break up the chemistry of his current roster. A free agent like Brook Lopez fits in perfectly with this roster, as a veteran who could be willing to take less money in order to contend for a title.

Philadelphia 76ers: Here’s where things get interesting. Philly has a significant amount of cap space, as Joel Embiid is their only player on a major contract. With expiring contracts from three point shooters like JJ Redick and Marco Belinelli, the Sixers have two goals in free agency: to get a third star and to get some shooters. They’ll start with Will Barton, who can score from anywhere on the floor, but hasn’t been able to fully show it behind Jamal Murray and Gary Harris. They could also re-sign Belinelli, who won’t be too expensive, but could also look towards the services of Wayne Ellington, whose only skill seems to be shooting the ball. From there, Philly can splash some cash on a star. One player who I would love to see in a Sixers uniform is Isaiah Thomas. The man wants to get paid, but unfortunately timed injury concerns will likely limit his value on the market. Philly is a team that can afford to overpay him, and can also afford to make up for his size. Thomas’ shooting edge perfectly complements Ben Simmons’ desire to go the basket, and this could make for a perfect comeback story. Sorry Philly, but I think you’ll lose the LeBron sweepstakes. Fortunately, that likely leaves them some room to re-sign Simmons and keep him happy amidst some public internal drama.

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New York Knicks: The Knicks are still regretting the obscene contract given to Joakim Noah in 2016, who turns 34 in February. His uselessness at this point in his career makes him a difficult trade candidate when such a big price tag is attached to his head, effectively limiting the Knicks’ options this offseason. The organization may have finally found its saving grace in David Fizdale, a head coach who exudes the type of energy that New York has been missing for a long time. Despite the enthusiasm that Fizdale has garnered from all around the league, there is only so much that the Knicks can do in Fizdale’s first year at the helm. They have a clear need for wing players, and the draft can help fix that, but this must be addressed in free agency as well. Enes Kanter has embraced life as a Knick and will surely opt into his player option, establishing a solid frontcourt with the unicorn. Depth at the guard position is promising, but a glaring lack of star power will limit their success. In an acquisition that makes New York much better for a price that won’t break the bank, I believe that the Knicks will trade for Kemba Walker and Nico Batum from the Charlotte Hornets. Walker enters his last year on a contract that pays him a bargain $12 million, and Charlotte also desperately hopes to get Batum’s lucrative deal off their books. This acquisition will likely come at the price of one of their young guards like Mudiay or Burke, along with a second player like Courtney Lee and their high draft pick. However, it sets the Knicks up as a team that could potentially progress quicker than expected. They’ll have to find a third team in the aforementioned trade to free up some cap space, but given that all goes according to plan, they should make a run at Jabari Parker. Despite being a restricted free agent, the Bucks likely won’t match a larger deal due to his injury concerns and Milwaukee’s other roster talent.

Brooklyn Nets: Oh, Brooklyn. The Nets finally have a pick in the first round this year, albeit outside of the lottery. This team is finally starting to show some promise, despite an injury hampered season in 2018. Brooklyn believes that they have found their center of the future in Jarrett Allen, and are close to finalizing a deal for Dwight Howard and to get Mozgov off of their books. Their backcourt looks solid with Lin returning from early injury and D’Angelo Russell coming back on a bargain contract. The team will continue trying to groom young talent as they will likely strike out with bigger free agents on the open market. Dante Exum and Mario Hezonja come to mind as two free agents who could look to continue their development in Brooklyn.

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Central Division

Cleveland Cavaliers: Given LeBron’s recent frustrations with the Cavs, Cleveland likely won’t retain him next year. He has become too aggravated with too much of the organization, from owner to roster. This will trigger a rebuild, which will also send Kevin Love on his way. The Utah Jazz are a likely suitor, who are looking to beef up their roster with another star to compete with what looks like an extremely promising future. Cleveland will be looking to get a few first round picks in return, to go along with an Alec Burks contract and change. A third team might need to be brought in for the value to equal out, but this kind of a trade makes perfect sense for both teams. Look for the Cavs to try acquiring star potential in this upcoming draft to prepare for life without the king.

Indiana Pacers: Indiana wants to capitalize on the young talent that they managed to steal from under Oklahoma City’s nose in Oladipo and Sabonis, along with a modern big man in Myles Turner who is just waiting to come into his own. Their frontcourt seems set, and for cheap, to boot. The biggest decision that will dictate the Pacers’ offseason is Thaddeus Young’s decision on whether to opt into his player option for next season. His deal would be for $13 million, which is likely more than he would garner on the free market. However, if Young is looking for a long-term deal, he may want to decline the option to try to muscle out a deal with another team for $10-11 million per year. Ultimately, I think that Young will decide to stay in Indy, where he served as team captain and enjoyed a successful season as a team. Look for Indy to add a scoring punch to their roster to top it off, and someone like Rodney Hood or Rudy Gay should do the trick.

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Milwaukee Bucks: The Bucks desperately need to improve their frontcourt, and could especially benefit from a center with the presence that Thon Maker’s lanky frame lacks. With limited assets, Milwaukee will look for a veteran big man through trading, and will find one in Marcin Gortat. The Polish hammer could be acquired in a trade involving John Henson, and would mutually benefit both teams. From there, the Bucks will look for a faceup four man to space the floor in an offense geared around the Greek Freak. They’ll find their man in Ersan Ilyasova, whose versatility becomes more sought after as he progresses through his career. The Bucks will be looking for Eric Bledsoe to gel into the team better than he did last season, as he begins a contract year that will define his future.

Detroit Pistons: Detroit is looking to move in a new direction in hiring Dwayne Casey has their new head coach. With a solidified frontcourt for years to come, they will desperately be trying to make their time with Griffin and Drummond count. Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder fits the Pistons’ mold perfectly, with a fairly priced long-term contract. Schroder doesn’t want to be part of a rebuilding project, but will struggle to find a starting role on a higher level contender. A deal involving Schroder for Reggie Jackson and Stanley Johnson could be enough to tip the scales for Detroit, and position them with a “big three” for at least the next three years.

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Chicago Bulls: The Bulls have the potential to be one of the most interesting teams in free agency this year. They should match any max offer sheet made to Zach LaVine, and they should be looking to continue developing Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn. Chicago has the assets to make big moves in the offseason, but their lack of contention makes it hard for a marquee player to commit to the city long-term. I can see Chicago giving Jusuf Nurkic an offer he can’t refuse. The big man is a restricted free agent, but given Portland’s recent history of giving big money to the wrong players, they will be keen to avoid any such mistakes, paving the way for the young seven-footer to establish a European frontcourt in Chicago. The Bulls will also look into trading guys like Robin Lopez, Omer Asik and Cristiano Felicio in exchange for draft picks and future assets.

Southeast Division

Miami Heat: The Heat find themselves in a precarious situation, given that they owe their players more money in 2018-2019 than any other team. This scenario is centered on Hassan Whiteside, who continues to decline, despite the fact that he is due to make $25 million next year. Tyler Johnson is also owed $19 million, and Chris Bosh is still owed almost $27 million. It may be time for the Heat to start tanking, but that’s just not their style. Miami will find it extremely difficult to find someone willing to take Whiteside’s salary, but they could ultimately find a suitor within their division in the Orlando Magic. Some of Orlando’s best times as a franchise has come through prolific big men, and while Whiteside is no Shaq or Dwight in his prime, he could be the next in line. The Heat will likely take Bismack Biyombo’s lucrative but less expensive salary in return, to go along with a player like Shelvin Mack.

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Washington Wizards: The Wizards are the Trailblazers of the east. They’ve definitely been overlooked by fans and media as an attractive destination for players, and I don’t think they’ll be overlooked anymore after this offseason. Our nation’s capital will look to follow in the footsteps of their hockey brethren and become championship contenders, and will do so by acquiring DeMarcus Cousins in free agency. I’ve touched on this in a past article, but Cousins would make a perfect combination with the backcourt of Wall and Beal, especially given that he played with Wall in college. In order to make this happen, Washington will send Marcin Gortat to Milwaukee and try to find a trade suitor for Ian Mahinmi. It seems that Kelly Oubre will have to be traded along with Mahinmi in order for any deal to be worth making for opposing teams, but a promising young sixth man is a small price to pay for a game-changing player like Cousins. It’s going to be an interesting year in Washington.

Charlotte Hornets: Charlotte is absolutely entering tank mode. Recent reports have confirmed that Dwight Howard is heading to Brooklyn, and they will surely be looking to offload Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams as well. Kemba Walker will surely be shipped off in exchange for considerable assets, and the Hornets will be poised to be the worst team in the NBA and acquire the number one overall pick. I can see the Hornets dealing away Walker and Batum to the Knicks, in exchange for Emmanuel Mudiay or Trey Burke, Courtney Lee or Tim Hardaway Jr., and their first round pick. This would give New Orleans picks nine and eleven in the first round this year, setting them up to draft two players that could help position them for the future (my picks are Sexton and Knox). Michael Jordan’s team has been mediocre for too long and dealing Walker and Batum would give them the opportunity to give younger guys on their roster a bigger opportunity to make their impact. Expect a highly improved season from Malik Monk.

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Orlando Magic: Orlando has realized that Jonathan Isaac is a project, and will recruit Hassan Whiteside as beatable competition for him while he’s developing. They’ll also look to throw a max deal at Aaron Gordon, who will surely attract interest on the free agent market but will stay with Orlando due to being an RFA. The Whiteside acquisition will rid them of Bismack Biyombo’s ugly contract, and they will continue to move around their big men in looking for a Nikola Vucevic trade. This underrated big man puts up nice numbers in addition to having a three-point shot, all under an affordable contract. They’ll send him somewhere in exchange for future draft picks and young assets, as they continue to rework their roster. Look for the Magic to draft Trae Young in a move that could potentially make them a playoff contender in the East faster than people may have expected. Their starting five would look like: Young, Fournier, Simmons/Ross, Gordon, Whiteside. That starting five won’t make the NBA finals, but given that Young breaks out and that Isaac starts coming into his own, there would definitely be reason to be optimistic.

Atlanta Hawks: Atlanta will contend with Charlotte next year for the worst record in the east. They did tanking right last season in their first year out of the playoffs in over ten years. Dennis Schroder, the only bright light on the team other than John Collins, will be sent to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Reggie Jackson and Stanley Johnson. They’ve been waiting for Kent Bazemore to pan out forever, but they’ll have enough space to keep him on the roster. I could see them offering big money to Montrezl Harrell of the Clippers, who still shows tons of potential at a young age. Despite being a RFA, not many other teams have the same amount of cap space that the Hawks have. Look for Atlanta to try to acquire more picks in the draft.

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The Klopp Effect: How Jürgen Klopp Turned Liverpool into a Contender

A Change Felt Around The World

There was something different about Liverpool throughout the 2017/2018 Premier League and Champions League campaign. Belief seemingly instantly permeated throughout Anfield. Each player oozed pride, glory and class – no matter the size of the stage. Plenty of factors contributed to this generation of confidence and success, but one factor made all the difference. It didn’t come from the supporters, although we would love to think it was. It didn’t come from the updated stadium or the New Balance kits. It didn’t come from the purchase of £75 million center back, Virgil Van Dijk. It even wasn’t the arrival of Mohamed Salah, our Egyptian King (despite the pivotal role that he played throughout the campaign). The main reason for such lucrative success came from Jurgen Klopp, also known as “The Normal One”.

Despite his nickname, any football pundit can attest to the fact that Klopp is far from “normal”. Compared to recent managers like Brendan Rodgers, Roy Hodgson and King Kenny, Klopp has supplied each individual player with so much more confidence, hunger and will to compete in every minute of play. It feels different watching a side whose manager wants it more than most of the opposing players. Jurgen Klopp’s character and knowledge is unmatched in the premiership, and maybe even in Europe – is he the best manager in Europe? I wouldn’t disagree if you said yes.

But just how is the self-proclaimed “normal one” turning this Liverpool side around? Let’s dive in.

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His Personality

We haven’t seen the same amount of poise in each Liverpool individual since Steven Gerrard took his kit off for the last time. Jurgen Klopp is the natural leader that the rest of the players so desperately needed. He doesn’t just pick a starting eleven and discuss this week’s tactics with his players; Klopp has seemingly become a mentor and a friend to the boys. It is the constant communication and reinforcement of his belief and support that pushes his side along. His playful, exciting personality seems to carry over to every individual in the club. Every match, week in and week out, we see an inspiration that is undoubtedly created from the motivational German.

Liverpool has some of the youngest midfielders and outside backs in the Premier League and they drive balls and dive into tackles as if they have seen five or six years of top level experience. With young lads with incredible potential like Trent Alexander-Arnold (19), Andrew Robertson (24), and Dominic Solanke (20), Jurgen Klopp can transform these Reds into top-drawer footballers. This doesn’t simply include his inexperienced players; Mohamed Salah had previously transferred from Chelsea to Roma, where he barely saw time on the pitch in his first premier league stint. With just a little bit of trust and support from Klopp, Salah has been constantly breaking records, already winning the golden boot for the premier league in 2018.

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The way that Klopp carries himself, speaks to media reporters and works with every individual is fascinating. He is a pleasure to listen to, despite the slight language barrier. Jurgen Klopp consistently jokes with the media throughout his interviews and tends to make light of any serious subject, which takes weight off of his players’ shoulders. When it comes to reprimanding and creating change, everything is private. In the public eye, Klopp willingly takes the blame for every mistake made by a member of the club or suggests that entire club is at fault for the mistake.

Take a look at the amount of character that he exhibits in this clip. He celebrates every significant event as if he has scored his first goal in his professional career. It’s not just the athletes that he is affecting; it reaches the supporters as well. Seeing a manager with this much emotion and pride towards his side brings a love to the team that has long been missing since he took his role as manager.

Attracting The Best In The World

Because of his history of success and leadership in football, players are starting to flock towards Liverpool. Many of these footballers have taken offers from Liverpool over clubs of larger magnitude like Manchester United and Barcelona, because international stars desire to play for someone with his passion for the sport. Klopp has single-handedly created the acquisitions for key parts of this successful team:

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Mané, Karius, Matip, Klavan, Wijnaldum, Salah, Solanke, Robertson, Van Dijk and Ox are all included on this list. This includes over half of the starting eleven for Liverpool’s starting eleven in the recent Champions League final. In fact, Mané and Salah were two of the leading scorers in the English Premier League and Champions League. Karius had a strong season in the EPL, despite showing weak play in the Champions League Final. We’ve even recently signed the talented Fabinho, who had interest from Barcelona and other top clubs around the world. He will join Naby Keita on a squad that looks to be even stronger next year, with several other signings expected to be announced throughout the summer. Now THAT is the Klopp Effect at its finest.

His Style Of Play: Heavy Metal Football

“Heavy metal football” is truly a great depiction of what Klopp has brought to the Liverpool starting eleven. Constant pressure is applied with the likes of Mané and Salah on the wings, which allows Liverpool to fly from end to end, not giving opposing backs a rest. Bobby Firmino runs around like a mad man when an opposing defense is keeping possession. Behind him, Milner, Hendo, and Ox or Wijnaldum are the engines that match up with opposing midfielders of any level. It’s a fearless side that closes down any inter play as soon as possible.

The young and quick outside backs make forceful runs up the wing and challenge every winger to truly beat them when the time comes. Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson have grown to become difficult defenders to get by. Our strong center backs, Lovren and Van Dijk, are both towering, physical defenders. Their presence in the air and their strong, threatening tackles do not allow opposing strikers to have the confidence to turn when they are positioned behind them. Lovren was initially shy going into tackles until the German came into Melwood and boosted his abilities year to year. He has gone from giving up most 50-50 balls in the air in his first few campaigns to keeping arguably the best player in the world in his pocket. Being able to shut down Ronaldo in the biggest game of his career was great to see for any Liverpool supporter.

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The wingers and outside backs release so quickly when the ball is won, that it is almost impossible to keep up with them. Mané and Salah are rotating, Bobby is checking, and our outside back duo is charging down the outside of the pitch. It’s quick and it’s dangerous. Klopp has convinced these individuals of a winning system and they have all bought in because of Klopp’s belief, trust, and support.

There’s plenty more to do for the Reds to be dominant in the premier league, but I fully believe that Klopp is capable of transforming this team into a dynasty.

He has convinced his players that they will never walk alone. He is our belief and encouragement. He is “The Normal One”.

He is Jurgen Klopp.

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An Open Letter to LeBron James

Dear LeBron James,

Dear King – can I call you King? Let’s go with King.

Dear King,

Please beat the Warriors this year.

I’m going to have to make a confession. I didn’t want you to make the NBA Finals. I was pulling for the Celtics by the time we got to the ECF, given that my Wizards ended in disappointing fashion, yet again. You see, my dear king, I am not a huge fan of continuity. I like new storylines, underdog tales, and team basketball. What you did in these playoffs has been nothing short of incredible. To me, you have cemented yourself as the second best player of all time. For a long time, I have pledged my allegiance to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who dominated the game of basketball for a whopping three decades, coined the most unstoppable shot in the history of the game, and still holds the bragging rights of being all-time leading scorer. However, eight consecutive finals appearances in the modern NBA is unprecedented. Bill Russell still has you beat by two (for now), but it was a different game back in his time, with far less competition (albeit Wilt Chamberlain was a heck of a rival).

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Speaking of Bill Russell, let’s get back to the Celtics. King, don’t take it personally when I say that I was pulling for Brad Stevens’ squad to upset you and your lackadaisical supporting cast. Let’s be honest – you carried this team to the finals this season. Does your back hurt? I wouldn’t be surprised. I liked how gritty the Celtics were; every player who got minutes actively contributed to the success of the team (even man bun). Despite Marcus Smart’s cringeworthy shot selection and the absence of Boston’s two best players, this ragtag bunch truly made me believe that your run had come to an end. But, just like every year, you singlehandedly proved everyone wrong.

King, I’m tired of seeing the Warriors dominate. Their finals run should have come to an end as soon as you put a 73-win team in their place, but they just had to go out and sign the second best player in the world. What kind of a world do we live in where a Chris Paul move to the Lakers gets blocked, but Kevin Durant is able to join a perennial Finals contender? Golden State barely scraped by the Rockets, thanks to a historically abysmal shooting night from three point range, and a timely injury to the team’s floor general. I cannot help but wonder about how differently things may have played out if CP3 was on the floor; the man is notorious for being able to make plays in any kind of situation. When Houston went cold, Chris Paul could’ve made an important triple to instill some confidence in the team. Nobody feels more confident when James Harden gets all of his points by getting to the line. It seemed like PJ Tucker and Clint Capela were the only players who really wanted it, and while Harden wasn’t bad, I simply needed more from the soon-to-be-MVP. Then again, this is the Warriors we’re talking about here. What is a team with one All Star supposed to do against a team with four of them?

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King, what impresses me the most about you is your stamina. You played 94 of 96 possible minutes in the last two games of the Eastern Conference Finals, and the Cavs needed you for all of them. I remember Reggie Miller criticizing KD in the first half of their WCF game seven for not doing enough on the floor, but nobody else remembers that. Everyone else is going to see his 34-point stat line and say that the Slim Reaper led Golden State to their fourth consecutive finals appearance. In reality, having four All Stars on one squad gives players the luxury of taking a rest when they need to, allowing for an evenly distributed workload. KD can afford to play an abysmal first half. Klay Thompson can afford to pick up three quick fouls in the first quarter. If this was you, King, forget about it. Do you think Kyle Korver is going to pick up anyone’s slack? I don’t think so.

King, I know your supporting cast isn’t as talented as it was a year ago. I know you got dismantled in five games last year, even with a stud like Kyrie Irving by your side. I know that your chances of even taking the Warriors to five or six games are slim. But I can still hope. I’m a sucker for a good underdog story, and if there was ever a time to prove that you’re the GOAT, it is now. Winning the championship this year would put you right at the top in my eyes – even after losing to Dirk Nowitzki in 2011. I can’t think of a better way for you to solidify your legacy. So, for your sake, for my sake, for the sake of the NBA, and for the sake of every little boy and girl who aspires to be like you, please, please, PLEASE beat the Warriors.

Sincerely,

Ben Zeltser, unathletic basketball fan extraordinaire

We Need to Slow Down with how we Talk About the Cavs

The Cleveland Cavaliers trail 0-2 in their best of seven ECF series with the Boston Celtics, and the internet is going crazy. Some have been labeling it as the end of LeBron’s reign on the NBA. Others have been labeling it as a signal of LeBron’s departure from an underperforming organization that is still up for sale by its owner. Regardless of the storyline that we choose to employ, one thing is for certain: we are rushing to conclusions. And why wouldn’t we? The NBA has strategically (in addition to giving players more rest) awarded the Cavs and Celtics with a four-day break from their series, further elevating the excitement and giving fans ample time to think long and hard about why the Cavs are down 0-2. All of this free time has made for rushed opinions and ridiculous theories that can only be confirmed on the court. Here are four key concepts that we have forgotten, or have chosen not to think about.

1. The Media Controls the Narrative Around the Cavs

The media has been nit-picking LeBron James from the get-go. Despite coming back from a lackluster game one performance with a 40-point triple double, analysts and former players are all getting on the King, saying that he needs to attack the low post more. There is no doubt that he should be utilizing his physicality to a higher degree, but at that point, we are simply grasping for straws. The fact of the matter is that LeBron’s supporting cast is garbage. Volume scorers like Rodney Hood and Jordan Clarkson are shrinking in the face of the playoffs, and nobody is talking about it. There is a simple solution to the Cavs’ woes against the hard-working Boston Celtics, and it revolves around team basketball.

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As YouTuber MDJ explains in his video, “The Chamberlain Paradox“, team success is often undercut by an individual taking up a disproportionate amount of ball possession, precluding the rest of the team from getting in a rhythm, therefore resulting in worse team play. This is the argument that many analysts have taken as a reason to shoulder the blame on LeBron. However, this argument can quickly be diffused based on the talent on the Cavs’ roster. Kevin Love, Kyle Korver and JR Smith are certainly no Hal Greer, Chet Walker or Billy Cunningham (all HOFers in their own right). LeBron has to do what he does on a nightly basis, just for the Cavs to even be in the game. Don’t let the media’s focus on LeBron James distract you from the real issue that the Cavs deal with on a nightly basis: who is going to step up to help the King?

2. The Celtics Only Held Home Court

Many analysts have counted the Cavs out of the series already, as the Celtics have never lost a playoff series in which they started with a 2-0 lead. This statistic can be deceiving, as the NBA has constantly played around with the order in which they place home and away games in a seven-game series in the playoffs. In recent times, they have settled on what I believe to be the most viable solution; two home games to one team (the higher seed), followed by two home games to the other team, and then reverting to a home-away-home schedule in favor of the higher seed. This is the best solution because it minimizes the chances of creating too much or too little of an advantage for the home team, while also allowing for players to travel as little as possible to minimize unwarranted fatigue.

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Teams are generally expected to hold on to home court advantage and win the games in their respective buildings, and as the higher seed, the Celtics merely achieved what they were supposed to achieve. It still remains to be seen whether they can steal a game in Cleveland, at which point it may be time to call it a series in favor of Boston. This very well may be the case, but we must not rush to conclusions in this regard, as LeBron has proven to us time and time again that it’s not over until it’s over.

3. Ty Lue Needs to Stop Trying to Appease All of his Players

Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue has amassed notoriety for his tendency to be a players’ coach. His coaching decisions are partially motivated by the way that it would make players feel. While this may very well be the right course of action in the regular season, Lue must be more cutthroat in the playoffs when it’s win or go home. I get a headache seeing players like JR Smith and Jeff Green getting heavy minutes in playoff situations where they simply don’t cut it.

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We all know that Larry Nance Jr. has no prior playoff experience, but he’s the second most athletic player on the roster, so rewarding him with 15 total minutes in the first two games is unacceptable. Likewise, when the Cavs need a scoring spark from the rest of their roster, they need to rely more upon players who have proven that they can score in bunches once they get going. Rodney Hood was averaging 17PPG on the Utah Jazz before he was traded to the Cavs, but how can Lue expect to get this kind of scoring punch in 11 minutes of action in game two? Lastly, Kyle Korver has proven to be the second best scorer for the Cavs thus far in the series, so Lue needs to turn his 21MPG average in the first two games into at least 30 minutes every night for the rest of the series.

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JR Smith, a shooting guard, has made two buckets and zero three-pointers in the past two games. He needs to be benched without question, as it is visibly clear that Lue has a special place in his heart for the veteran. Lue needs to begin making these kinds of tough decisions if he hopes to change the Cavs’ luck in the rest of the series.

4. Kevin Love is All-Star Caliber, & he has to Act Like it

Kevin Love has been okay in the first two games of the series. Okay doesn’t cut it when you’re the second best player on a team that you’re hoping to take to the championship. Kyrie Irving made the game so much easier for LeBron, because he was able to take over as the focal point at any time in the game, allowing the King to relax on offense and therefore put in more effort on defense. LeBron looks fatigued when he gets back on defense because of how much he has to do on the offensive end. Love needs to demand the ball and make things happen for himself, rather than operating as a cog in the system run by LeBron. Love’s success will translate to higher team success; players will see that somebody besides LeBron can get going, which will elevate everyone else’s confidence. Love needs to average at least 25PPG and 10RPG for the rest of the series if the Cavs hope to have a chance against an extremely hard-working Celtics team.

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End of Season All NBA Predictions

The 2017-2018 NBA regular season just ended in dramatic fashion last week. The Nuggets took the Timberwolves into overtime before eventually falling and surrendering the final playoff spot to Jimmy Butler and KAT. Throughout the season, some of the biggest names in basketball continued to prove why they remain atop the NBA’s elite, and some previously unknown players are positioned to be staples in the league for years to come. Here are my predictions on how All-NBA team voting will go down.

ALL NBA FIRST TEAM

G: Russell Westbrook (Oklahoma City Thunder)
G: James Harden (Houston Rockets)
F: LeBron James (Cleveland Cavaliers)
F: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks)
C: Anthony Davis (New Orleans Pelicans)

Explanation

NBA fans are suckers for triple doubles. Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder clinched home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs last week by the skin of their teeth, after a season filled with dramatic storylines. Westbrook tacked on 20 rebounds to finish the season averaging yet another triple double. With plenty of competition in the guard slots this year, voting is sure to leave certain players in less than desirable positions. Westbrook may find his way atop these guards because voters will find it difficult to demote last season’s MVP after repeating the same feat that brought him the award last year.

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James Harden and LeBron James are no-brainers when it comes to making the first team. These two will likely lead MVP voting, with Anthony Davis following closely behind. Harden has led his team to the best record in the NBA by a wide margin, and LeBron is averaging a career high in rebounds and assists after doing the same thing last year. The last time he averaged more than his current scoring margin is 2009-2010: the last season of his first stint on the Cavs.

The legacy of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s breakout season was marred by the lack of success that the Milwaukee Bucks showed this past season, putting him a tier below LeBron and Harden in terms of MVP contention. That won’t stop the Greek Freak from making the first team this year, showing massive athleticism and continued development. He will also be in the running for the Most Improved Player Award, posting a career high scoring average that tops last year’s production by four points, along with 10 rebounds a game. He also managed to stay healthy all year, a feat that not many elite forwards in the NBA were able to accomplish this year.

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Anthony Davis becomes a precarious situation because he is listed as a Power Forward. He played the majority of his minutes at the four when Boogie was still healthy, but we will make a special exception based off of his ridiculous output, and he played at the center position late into the season. The Brow logged major performances on several different occasions this season, including eight games of 41+ points within the span of a month and a half. These numbers, coupled with Giannis’ dominating performance all season make it difficult to leave either of them off of the first team. Davis plays the five when Cousins is out, and was considered a center last season. Hopefully, the NBA can make an exception.

ALL NBA SECOND TEAM

G: DeMar DeRozan (Toronto Raptors)
G: Damian Lillard (Portland Trailblazers)
F: Kevin Durant (Golden State Warriors)
F: LaMarcus Aldridge (San Antonio Spurs)
C: Karl Anthony-Towns (Minnesota Timberwolves)

Explanation

Damian Lillard’s latest push for All NBA First Team recognition in a recent interview will likely fall short because of the lofty competition ahead of him. I cannot stress how tight I expect the guard voting to be in this year’s ballot, but Dame’s Trailblazers hardly ended up clinching the third seed in the West, leading Westbrook’s Thunder by one game. This margin should not be enough to separate Lillard from the man averaging a triple double for the second consecutive time, at least in the eyes of voters. Regardless, Lillard posted consistent numbers for the third consecutive year, including an astonishing clutch factor and FT% of .916. The man deserves his recognition.

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Give DeMar DeRozan the recognition that he deserves. The Compton kid completely rebuilt the way he and his team play basketball, and perfected it to a tee. The fact of the matter is that DeRozan is the best player on the team with the second best record in the NBA, and that alone merits some recognition. An argument can be made that the Raptors’ success is predicated on team play, but DeRozan is the spearhead of that play style and has solidified himself as an elite player in this league. He’s that type of player who gets a ton of recognition from his fellow NBA players around the league, and everyone respects his game because of it.

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KD is a perennial option for First Team All NBA, and he very well might repeat the feat this year. Ultimately, I believe that it will be too difficult for voters to leave the Greek Freak out of the first team because he played the entire season, and had an incredibly high output. Regardless, KD would be a fine selection for the first team, despite the fact that his teammates take away from his stats.

The NBA’s most well-run franchise was without their best player for the entire season, but no skin off LaMarcus’ bones. Aldridge finally had a season that reminded people of his days in Portland, and the lack of depth at the forward position in the NBA could result in a second team nod. With 23PPG, his consistent play has kept a staggeringly lacking Spurs roster in the playoff hunt in a cutthroat conference. Kudos to LaMarcus.

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My hometown high school is rivals with KAT’s alma mater, and that will always be my claim to fame. The former number one pick showed improvement in shot selection and consistent numbers all year, even with the addition of Jimmy Butler. Towns has also stayed durable, playing in all 82 games, despite the fact that Tom Thibodeau likes to load his starters with heavy minutes. KAT took his game – and team – to another level this season.

ALL NBA THIRD TEAM

G: Kyrie Irving (Boston Celtics)
G: Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors)
F: Paul George (Oklahoma City Thunder)
F: Jimmy Butler (Minnesota Timberwolves)
C: Joel Embiid (Philadelphia 76ers)

Explanation

The real best player on the Minnesota Timberwolves this year has been Jimmy Butler. Unfortunately, Butler was only able to play 59 games, but put up elite numbers in that time. He barely saw his production go down despite being on the same team as two star-caliber players. He also did it on both ends of the floor, tremendously improving a defense that would give up at the end of games last season. Butler took the ailing Timberwolves to their first playoff berth since 2004 in his first season; what does he have in store next?

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Kyrie Irving is yet another victim of missing out on higher All NBA Team status because of missing games. Perhaps voters are relieved, though, because of the large volume of competition among guards this year. Irving’s first stint with the Celtics and as the (seasoned) leader of a franchise ended with a second-seed berth, which could definitely be considered a success. This especially holds true due to the Celtics’ lack of Gordon Hayward all season. Regardless, Irving only played 60 games, so he is lucky to make the list.

The All NBA Third Team should be renamed the All NBA Injury team. Steph Curry, the former two-time MVP is due to miss the first two All NBA teams for the first time since 2013. Granted, he has everything working against him on the road to All-NBA greatness. He has three all-star caliber teammates, and has missed 31 games this season. Only Steph can miss basically half the season and still rank among the top 15 players.

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The fourth and final player whose All NBA stardom has been deterred from missing games is Joel Embiid. The Process looks to take his 76ers to the NBA Finals this year, and does so with freakish talent and consistent production. Notice how Embiid has won almost every single matchup that he has had with star big men this season (see Whiteside, Drummond). Such dominance just shows what is still to come in Embiid’s basketball career, and we can only marvel at the talent that he flashes until he can do so in a full season without a minutes restriction.

Paul George will round out the All NBA Third team. Most critics will say that the Thunder underperformed, but PG13 has stayed consistent all season on both ends of the floor. George is second in the league in steals and notably plays the most minutes for the Thunder. OKC knows that they can count on George to produce consistently with minimal hiccups, and even though he doesn’t gel perfectly with the team, he should have done enough this year to secure this spot.

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Sorry Oladipo.

Top 20 NBA Point Guards

Point guards in the NBA are essentially the quarterbacks of their respective team. Not many teams in recent history have been able to succeed without a marquis ball handler leading the team. Thus, as the league continues emphasize three-point shooting and ball movement, securing a talented point guard to lead the team down the stretch of the NBA season has never been more important.

Here are my rankings on the top 20 point guards in the NBA today. Let the record show that I am excluding combo guards such as James Harden, Jamal Murray and Jordan Clarkson, as it is too difficult to pinpoint their natural position. Additionally, my rankings are based off of current talent, and the players I list may very well be better (or worse) than their ranking come next year. Here goes!

Honorable Mentions:

Reggie Jackson: Jackson desperately wanted a change of scenery three seasons ago when he became unhappy sitting the bench behind Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City. Unfortunately, his numbers have been trending towards a slow decline after a good start in Detroit. He’s the type of player to be good enough to earn a starting role on a team but to not be good enough to be able to be the point guard of a playoff contender.

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Malcolm Brogdon: The Bucks went out and got Eric Bledsoe, moving Brogdon to the bench. The all-around reliable reigning rookie of the year will have to wait until he’s dealt to a new team before he can show his true pedigree. High floor, low ceiling.

Kris Dunn: This speedy ball handler out of Providence College was quickly touted as a bust after not panning out in Minnesota. However, a new change of scenery certainly took Dunn’s career off of the backburner, and he’s thriving under a rebuilding team in the Bulls. Dunn must hope to stay healthy and continue developing if he wishes to continue his career turnaround.

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Lonzo Ball: Lonzo definitely has game, but the man certainly needs a few years to develop. Ball is a triple double threat on any given night and a top five passer in the league, but the rest of his game needs too much work for him to make the list. His shooting percentage, free throw percentage, three point percentage and defense all need a tremendous improvement if he hopes to fulfill all of the promises that his father has made.

De’Aaron Fox: One of my favorite players coming up in the game, it would take an idiot not to see the raw talent that Fox possesses. Fox’s rookie year boasts relatively pedestrian numbers, but with the exit of George Hill and with the Kings out of playoff contention, he should see quite a bit of usage in the second half of the season. Fox is having that classic rookie season in which everyone can tell that his mistakes can be attributed to his lack of experience in the league, and these mistakes will surely lessen has his career continues.

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Tier 5: Playoff Caliber Point Guards

20. D’Angelo Russell: Russell barely managed to make this list simply because of the lack of body of work that we have seen from him thus far into his career. He definitely experienced some growing pains in his first two years in the league with the Lakers, but got to start fresh with the Brooklyn Nets following a trade. He jumped to a start that would have put him higher on this list, but unfortunately went down due to injury for a large part of the first half of the year. Russell is still working his way back to the same minutes that he had during his surge, but we must see how he comes back. His defensive game could use work, along with his free throw shooting, and his maturity level from a leadership standpoint must improve if he hopes to lead the rebuilding Nets in the future.

19. Elfrid Payton: Payton has been stuck on a stagnant sub-par Magic team for his entire career, so it’s nice to see him find a new home in Phoenix. Known by most for his hair and unorthodox play style to match, Payton has been absolutely killing it in his first few games with Phoenix. An underrated defender and passer, he needs to become more of a scoring threat if he hopes to take his game to the next level. In his short time in Phoenix, he has shown an ability to take on more of a scoring workload, but we will have to see if this trend continues.

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18: Ricky Rubio: Rubio is the perfect floor general for a team with plenty of scoring options. Unfortunately, he is on the Utah Jazz. Regardless, Rubio has consistently been an incredibly reliable defender and playmaker for both the Jazz and his former Timberwolves team, but needs considerable improvement on the offensive side of the ball. His percentages have slowly been trending upwards as he continues to develop his shot, and as he approaches his late 20s, he still has a few years to make it better.

17: Dennis Smith Jr.: This man is an athletic freak of nature. In just his first year, Smith has become a regular when it comes to churning out highlight reel dunks. As his career wears on, the Russell Westbrook reincarnation must make sure to take care of his body, as his talent is hinged on his athleticism. Smith plays solid defense and all around basketball, but his sub-par shooting percentages have floated under the radar. This will surely improve as early as next season, but for now, Smith is stuck at number 17.

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Tier 4: All-Star Caliber Point Guards

16. Dennis Schröder: Schröder can just smell his first all-star appearance. The German point guard is often overlooked because of the team he plays on, but he can match up against any guard in the league. Schröder is physically gifted, with a wingspan that turns his 6’1” stature into an afterthought and large hands that drew comparisons to Rajon Rondo coming into the league. Despite his raw talent and improving numbers as his usage rate increases, Schröder has been abysmal from three-point range this season, averaging .287 from beyond the arc. Granted, given the lack of talent on his team, he has likely seen far less open looks this season, and his previous good three point shooting seasons allow me to give him the benefit of the doubt. If these struggles continue, he may wind up losing his spot on this list.

15. Jrue Holiday: New Orleans was one of the first teams in the NBA to adopt the “positionless basketball” mantra that is expanding in popularity. However, their roster personnel is the main motivator behind their affinity to this play style. Not only do they have two big men in Boogie and AD, but they also have two floor generals in Rondo and Holiday. The former all-star has shown his multifaceted skillset by seamlessly fitting into the shooting guard slot, but that hasn’t stopped Holiday from taking on the point guard role when Rondo misses games or sits out. The former all-star is helping keep the Pelicans afloat amid tragic injury to a certain Demarcus Cousins, and he is doing so with career highs in field goal shooting and points per game. His assists have taken a slight hit from sharing the point guard role, but his 5.6 assist per game average is more than enough to categorize him into the point guard position.

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14. Jeff Teague: Teague has taken plenty of different roles in his time in the NBA, and his newest role features him on the Minnesota Timberwolves as its unsung hero. Prior to Jimmy Butler’s injury, the Wolves had plenty of scoring coming from all over the court, with three All-Star caliber players sharing a spot in the starting five. Teague, a former All-Star, is the fourth option on this team, but that is just fine. His shooting numbers have improved from last year, and he still ranks top five amongst point guards in assists per game. Teague, who once led an Atlanta Hawks team to 60 wins in subtle fashion, has never gotten the credit that he deserves. Point guards often produce the flashiest numbers among players on the floor, but Teague relishes in his opportunities to make the team better in any way that he can. Just because his role is smaller than some of the people above him on this list does not mean that he is a less effective player

13. Goran Dragic: Dragic was selected to his first All-Star team this year as a replacement, despite a dip in his numbers. This can probably be attributed to commissioner Adam Silver’s desire to reward Dragic for so many good seasons in the NBA without recognition. The Slovenian international is a shooting threat from all over the floor, and he can easily create for his teammates at any time. Dragic currently has a trash Heat team in playoff contention, and they can continue to look forward with such a reliable player to handle the ball.

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Tier 3: Special Players

12. Eric Bledsoe: This man just wants to play basketball. From acting as Chris Paul’s backup in his first few years in the NBA to being stuck in a three-man logjam in Phoenix with the two guards sandwiched between him on this list, Bledsoe has constantly been in bad situations. This season, he finally finds himself on a contending team with other pieces, and despite the Bucks’ early struggles to gel together, Bledsoe has shown his natural ability. At just 6’1”, the man is a freak athlete, hard worker, and also extremely strong with the basketball. His work on the defensive end especially has improved as of late, and look for his offensive numbers to follow as he gets more acclimated with the young Milwaukee Bucks roster. It’s exciting to see what Bledsoe does with his first opportunity to shine.

11. Isaiah Thomas: Everyone knows what Isaiah can do on the offensive side of the ball. However, last year’s MVP candidate finds himself so low on this list because he is quite literally useless on defense. Even if Isaiah wanted to play defense, he is matching up against guys who are simply too big for him to guard. If a 6’0” point guard is considered undersized, then what is Isaiah Thomas? Regardless, his ability on the offensive side of the ball alone is enough to put him in the thick of things on this list. Thomas has been fighting a hip injury for the past year and is still looking to get back into form with his new Lakers team, but once the tiny titan actually gets his powers back, everyone will be reminded of just how good IT can be. Let’s not forget that the man averaged 29 and 6 on stellar shooting last year for the first seed in the Eastern Conference.

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10. Ben Simmons: Along with Donovan Mitchell, Ben Simmons currently leads the ROTY race due to his unselfish play, unparalleled build for a point guard, and his basketball fundamentals. Simmons could be categorized as any position from 1-4, but as long as Markelle Fultz looks like a bust, Simmons is considered a point guard. Listed on ESPN at 6’10”, the 2016 first overall pick is a mismatch problem for any position on the floor, especially the point guard position. He averages incredible numbers all around as a triple double threat on a nightly basis. If he could expand his game beyond the three-point line and improve his free throw shooting, Ben Simmons could find himself among the NBA’s elite much sooner than even he himself had expected.

9. Kemba Walker: Cardiac Kemba sits just one spot out of the second tier, and that may be just because of the market that he plays in. On a team where the second offensive option is Dwight Howard, Kemba is averaging 23 and 6, steadily keeping up with his production from last year. The John Wall lookalike continues to improve his shooting as he adjusts to today’s NBA, and has rightfully received two consecutive all-star nods as a result. If he hopes to gain more recognition, Walker must either move to a contending team that receives more attention or help bring the Hornets into the playoff race. He’s stuck with them for the remainder of the season, so we’ll see if he takes this mediocre roster into playoff contention.

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 Tier 2: All-NBA Players

8. Kyle Lowry: Good NBA players make the most of their prime years and do as much as they can in the time that they are still at the peak of their game. Great NBA players adjust their game past their prime to prolong their greatness. This is exactly what Kyle Lowry has done. There is no question that, at the age of 31, Lowry is on his way out of the top ten point guards in the NBA. He is averaging 6 less points per game this year than his total in 2016/17. However, Lowry is still an All-Star talent, averaging career highs in rebounding, nearing his career high in free throw percentage, and leading his Raptors to the first seed of the Eastern Conference. He has effectively let DeRozan share more of the offensive load and has transitioned into becoming a reliable, experienced veteran point guard who can basically do anything on the floor. As long as Kyle Lowry helps the Raptors continue to contend, he will remain atop this list.

7. Mike Conley Sr.: Mike Conley is no longer overrated. Sure, he still hasn’t made an All-Star team, but that will likely come in the next few years. But the lack of exposure that he gets in a market like Memphis was offset when he was paid a hefty sum to continue being his reliable self. We are currently seeing exactly how much Conley means to Memphis in his time fighting injury. After starting out 5-1 with Conley, the Grizzlies have gone 11-34 since losing him for the season. His unavailability resulted in the controversial firing of head coach David Fizdale, and has also prompted thoughts within the organization of forcing a rebuild and starting over. I love the fact that the man has never received a technical foul, as it shows his character as a basketball player. Conley turns 31 next season, but his skillset is predicated on his basketball IQ rather than his athleticism, so we should see a few more good years from Conley after he gets healed up.

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6. Damian Lillard: There may be no player in the NBA with more ice in his veins than Damian Lillard. The man who doubles as a rapper is known for hitting clutch shots when the team needs him most, and has averaged at least 25 points per game in each of his last three seasons. He’s another small market player who misses out on deserved recognition for reasons outside of his control. Lillard has career highs this year in FG%, FT% and BPG, while maintaining all other parts of his game. His team currently sits in 5th place, right in the thick of things in the Western Conference. Some may have Lillard a bit higher on this list, and he very well may be deserving of that. Besides for McCollum and Nurkic, his supporting cast is rather mundane and could use some help to take the next step in his career. He could also improve on the defensive side of the ball, as the people ahead of him on this list are better all-around players.

5. Chris Paul: I honestly believed that this would be the year that Chris Paul’s numbers take a dip. Suffice it to say that I was wrong. CP3 is showing his worth on the Houston Rockets, a team that currently sits atop the Western Conference, even above the Golden State Warriors. With Paul, the team is easily a championship contender. The fact that Paul is able to simply walk into that building and immediately gel with his new teammates speaks to his basketball IQ and his ability as a basketball player, especially after seeing the early struggles of teams like the Thunder. The Rockets have only lost six total games on the season when Chris Paul has played. If that doesn’t do him justice, his career high FT% and continuous production from other parts of his game absolutely should. Paul also does it on the defensive end as he has done for his entire career, which could not be said for many of the players on this list and many of the players in the NBA in general.

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Tier 1: Perennial MVP Contenders

4. John Wall: Yes, the Wizards have a better record this season when John Wall is out. Yes, Wall is reeling from a season that had people predicting him as an MVP contender this season. No, he has not lost it. John Wall has the it-factor. Damian Lillard, Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook have it too. He wants the ball when the clock is expiring and he isn’t afraid of anyone. John Wall may be having an off year, but he was still named to the all-star team and he still does it on both ends of the floor. If these rankings were solely based off of defense, Wall would be in the top two between he and Chris Paul. On the offensive end, he is averaging a career high in the category that he needed to work on the most: three-point shooting. This kind of development makes me optimistic that Wall will come back with a vengeance from his injury. Just last season, the Kentucky product averaged 23 and 11, and we should see similar production later on as the Wizards make their playoff push. Wall should see considerable improvement before the playoffs, as his mentality can be compared to that of LeBron’s, who obviously kicks into a completely different gear once basketball starts becoming more important.

3. Kyrie Irving: I am obsessed with Kyrie Irving. I love the fact that he wanted to do it away from LeBron. It shows me that Kyrie has an alpha mentality and that he wants to be great. He knew what his legacy would have turned into had he spent all of his prime years being the Robin to LeBron’s Batman. Kyrie is considered an MVP candidate this season, as he has led a young, Hayward-less Boston Celtics team to the current most wins in the Eastern Conference. Due to coach Brad Stevens’ tendency to play unselfish, team basketball, Irving’s stats this season do not do him justice. He is the best ball handler and dribbler in the NBA, and is a top-five finisher around the basket. His shooting range extends throughout the floor once he crosses half-court, and his defense has been improving too. He is enjoying a career high FG%, and as long as he stays hungry, he will continue producing highlight reel plays and ridiculous stat lines. Look for him to take it up a notch in the playoffs, as well.

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2. Stephen Curry: This man is easily the greatest shooter that the NBA has ever seen. Kevin Durant is the second best player in the NBA and Curry is still averaging more points than him this season. This purely speaks to his shooting prowess and reminds people around the league of why he was our league’s repeat MVP just two seasons ago. Curry’s averages are right on par with where they have always been, and the fact that he still does it on a team with four all-stars is simply ridiculous. Curry will remain a part of the NBA’s elite until he retires.

1. Russell Westbrook: I want to clarify this: I hate Russell Westbrook. He is probably one of my least favorite stars in the NBA. He’s a great person and role model in professional sports, but I just cannot grow to like him as a player. However, that does not stop me from accepting the fact that he is the best point guard in professional basketball. As of right now, he is .5 RPG away from repeating the feat of averaging a triple double for the duration of an entire season. On a team with two other stars who handily score the basketball, Westbrook also leads the team in scoring by a sizable margin of three points per game. The man does it all on the basketball court. He drastically needs to improve his three-point shooting, but you can count on him to hit the three when it’s clutch time. Westbrook was our league’s MVP last season, and if the Thunder make a late playoff push that sees them capitalizing on their potential, Westbrook can probably emerge as a surprise candidate. Even though they went down in five games last season, I’m still amazed at the fact that he averaged 37 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists in that short-lived series. The only other player that I can think of who can shoulder a team as much as Westbrook can just happens to be the greatest player in the world.

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Cuban Immigration Policy Continues to Affect MLB Player Eligibility

As the hot stove continues during the MLB offseason, it is important to consider an increasingly popular means of signing players: international free agency. This isn’t about the “Japanese Babe Ruth,” Shohei Otani, who will begin his MLB career with Mike Trout and the Los Angeles Angels. I’m instead talking about the dangerous side of international free agency.

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Shohei Otani (pictured) continues a successful tradition of baseball players coming to the US to play in the MLB.

The issue stems from a loophole in Major League Baseball and the United States Treasury Department rules surrounding the signing of Cuban baseball players. Since the beginning of the Cold War, direct trade talks between the United States and Cuba have been practically non-existent. On November 8, President Donald Trump announced that he would roll back achievements from the Obama administration in regards trade with Cuba. Despite icy relations between the two countries, Cuban defectors are able to come to the States and immediately set themselves on the pathway to becoming a legal resident. As legal residents, these players can declare for the MLB draft, where they can be chosen by any team setting themselves up to be paid around the league minimum salary, about $500,000. However, if defectors are smuggled into a second country before signing with an MLB club, they can be signed as an international agent and forgo low rookie contracts.

According to Baseball Reference, 76 Cuban defectors have played in the MLB since Fidel Castro’s communist revolution in 1959. MLB teams have identified Cuba as a hotbed for young talent. According to American sports agent Joe Kehoskie, “Cuba is a very close second in terms of overall talent…If you are comparing Cuba and the major leagues, if the major leagues are the American League East, Cuba is the American League West.”

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Jose Abreu (pictured) is one of many MLB players who had to defect from their country in order to play in the MLB.

Much of this talent is untapped as a result of the travel restrictions to Cuba. Despite difficulties in scouting players in Cuba, many defectors have been able to make it to the forefront of the MLB – this includes Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman and 2014 Rookie of the Year Jose Abreu. There has been no shortage of success for Cuban defectors in Major League Baseball, but getting them into the country and into the league has proven to be a far more difficult task.

Yasiel Puig took the MLB by storm in 2013. That year, the 22-year-old Cuban defector hit for a batting average of .391 and an OPS of .925 with 19 home runs and 42 RBI in 104 games with the Dodgers. Throughout his career, he has been known for his eccentric behavior and questionable off-field antics. In 2013, he was arrested on a reckless driving charge for going 110 mph in a 70 mph zone. On a separate occasion, when asked why he licks his bat during the 2017 World Series, Puig replied, “I make love to the bat and he pays me back with hits.”

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Yasiel Puig (pictured) has had one of the more well-documented journeys to the MLB of any Cuban defector.

Puig’s journey to American baseball was similar to many other Cuban defectors. He was approached by a Miami air conditioner repairman, Raul Pacheco, who told Puig that he would be able to smuggle him into Mexico where he could take up residence before being signed as an international free agent. In return, Pacheco would get 20% of Puig’s MLB earnings. Puig was smuggled into Mexico by a drug cartel and held captive during negotiations between Pacheco and the cartel. Once negotiations were settled and Puig was able to escape, he was scouted by MLB clubs and signed to a seven year, $42 million deal with the LA Dodgers. Puig’s saga, however, was not over. On December 16, 2014, a Miami man named Gilberto Suarez was convicted of smuggling the Dodgers’ star outfielder to Mexico and was forced to forfeit the $2.5 million that Puig owed him after signing his contract. According to the Miami Herald, Raul Pacheco organized Puig and others’ escape from Cuba to Mexico, while Suarez smuggled the group into the United States. Suarez spent a month in federal prison for his crimes.

Gilberto Suarez was not the only smuggler to be arrested for trafficking Cuban baseball players. Sports agent Bartolo Hernandez was sentenced to nearly four years in prison and a forfeiture of $15.5 million on smuggling charges. Many Cuban MLB players, including Jose Abreu, testified to being smuggled into Mexico or Haiti using forged documents. In order for Cuban players to be signed as free agents, the Treasury Department needed to amend its stance on normalizing relations with Cuba. On March 21, 2016, United States President Barack Obama made significant strides towards implementing these policies by becoming the first president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. The trip was a highlight of Obama’s efforts to lift the Cuban embargo imposed by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1958. Featured on the trip was an exhibition baseball game played between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team. The game was symbolic of progress made by the Obama administration. Just before his trip on March 15, 2016, the President announced that his administration would allow Cuban citizens to work in the United States. As a result, Cuban players would be able to be signed as international free agents right out of Cuba.

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Sports agent Bartolo Hernandez (pictured) faces four years in prison along with a forfeiture of significant funds due to his player-smuggling activity.

The change in policy never got a chance to influence Major League Baseball. On November 8, 2017, President Donald Trump’s administration announced its decision to overturn the decision made by the Obama administration to loosen restrictions on visitation and trade with Cuba. As a result, Cuban players are, once again, unable to be signed as free agents without having to take up residence in a third country. In light of this issue, there are a number of different policies that both Major League Baseball and the United States Federal Government should enact to lessen the threat to Cuban defectors playing in the MLB. Unfortunately, the MLB owners and the Players Union have already agreed to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement through 2021. Hopefully, at that time, changes would be able to be made in regards to the integration of Cuban defectors into the MLB. One potential solution to the issue is to end the financial incentives that persuade defectors to take residence in a third country. The MLB would be able to force all international players to enter into the draft, meaning that whether a defector is signed from Mexico or from the United States, he would make the same salary. However, the MLB Players Association is one of the strongest unions in sports, and this legislation may seem like an effort to decrease player salaries, and likely would not be agreed upon. Another potential option would be to allow Cuban players to sign as international free agents from Cuba. According to the New York Times, the MLB is currently on board with this plan, but needs permission from the Treasury Department in order to engage in trade with Cuban players. Such consent from the Treasury Department seems increasingly unlikely given the Trump administration’s current policies towards trade with Cuba. There is still potential for a resolution to come from outside of the MLB, if the current administration changes its attitudes towards Cuban relations.

Unless MLB fans want to see the next Yasiel Puig or Jose Abreu subjected to drug cartels and kidnapping, they must call their representative in Congress and make several other initiatives to vocalize their support of normalized relations with Cuba.