All posts by Ben Zeltser

10 Bold Predictions for the 2018 NBA Regular Season

My favorite time of year is nearing; a time in which baseball is dormant, and everybody’s sights are set on NBA basketball (with some football and hockey sprinkled in). After the first two days of the regular season, some inklings have been solidified as a solid possibility, while other outcomes seem more unlikely. Here are ten outcomes that you should keep your eye on throughout the year.

1. New Orleans will finish as a top three seed in the West.

In addition to the Pelicans looking really good, the Rockets (their biggest threat besides the Warriors) don’t look to hot. I can definitely see them missing the defensive intensity that Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute brought every night, and New Orleans has tons of weapons that can go off on any given night. Four players totaled more than 20 points last night, and Elfrid Payton turned in a triple double. Combining a savvy passer like Payton with a dominant player like AD maximizes Payton’s skillset and makes it seem as though Rondo never left. Nikola Mirotic is streaky, but Julius Randle can provide relief that is just as productive as that of the sharpshooter from Montenegro. We haven’t even mentioned Jrue Holiday, who proved last year to be among the NBA’s elite defensive guards. Lastly, expect Davis to be among the top three in MVP voting, further boosting New Orleans’ chances.

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2. Andre Drummond will be a top ten player this year

Drummond has been slowly but surely working on every facet of his game, and it has translated into results that nobody had ever thought possible. Coach Dwane Casey has given Drummond the OK to shoot threes this year, and after improving his free throw percentage by nearly .250 last year, Drummond has become one of the most versatile bigs in the league. Combine this with likely the best rebounding in the league, and you get a top ten NBA player. Look out for the Pistons to sneak into the playoffs and develop into legitimate contenders once they can get rid of that Reggie Jackson contract.

3. Meet the new Raptors Big 3: Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry and… Pascal Siakam

My Canadian housemate has been raving about this guy for weeks, and I didn’t want to believe him. However, Siakam won the starting job over Serge Ibaka on opening night, and made sure not to waste the opportunity. There are rumblings that Siakam has tailored his game to that of Draymond Green this season, playing a hard-working defensive supporting role that helps keep the ball moving while making plays that don’t show up on the stat sheet. The man has range, a great eye for making passes, a complete defensive skillset, and a competitive mindset. Expect him to turn in an extremely productive season that gets him the respect that he deserves.

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4. The Brooklyn Nets make the playoffs

The Nets lost by three to the Pistons last night, but Brooklyn fans have to be optimistic. I don’t want to jump the gun on Caris LeVert being a star, but Jarrett Allen certainly looks like one. I’m optimistic that D’Angelo Russell will turn in a productive season, and Spencer Dinwiddie is one of the most underrated guards in the league. With Allen Crabbe, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Demarre Carroll all returning at different points in the season, it will be interesting to see how Brooklyn looks at full strength – they have seven or eight solid players throughout their rotation that should make them competitive on a nightly basis. Welcome back to the playoffs, Brooklyn.

5. Devin Booker will be an MVP candidate

At just 21 years old, Booker already looks like a seasoned veteran. The Kobe comparisons are very legitimate, and truthfully, the man already put up MVP numbers last year. The reason that Booker wasn’t in the conversation or even an all star was because of the Suns’ abysmal record. That should change this year with an extremely interesting roster led by some young studs with some solid veterans mixed in. Booker will have the ball in his hands frequently with very few options at point guard for the Suns, which should translate to incredible usage. Expect Booker to be a dark horse MVP candidate this season, and to be a potential 30PPG scorer.

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6. Washington Wizards will be a top four team in the East

After the Wizards finished with the eighth seed this past season, people have been quick to write Washington off. The narrative for this team last season was dominated by the drama between Marcin Gortat and John Wall along with John Wall’s injury and whether the team is better without him. The undeniable truth is that the Wizards need Wall, and with a more unified core this season, they are sure to improve. Washington improved their backcourt by adding proven starter Austin Rivers, and solidified their front-court by adding Dwight Howard, who is coming off of a resurgent season. Toronto, Boston and Philly are essential locks for a a top four finish in the East, and the Wizards’ main competition will likely come in the form of Milwaukee. I’m betting on the all star duo of Beal and Wall to beat out an MVP candidate in Giannis and a fringe-all star in Middleton to take that fourth spot in the East.

7. The second leading scorer for the Cavs this year will be… Cedi Osman

Osman is coming off of a lackluster rookie year, but showed many signs of promise with several postseason appearances. The Turk put up a solid stat line of 17-10-4 from the small forward position in the first game of the season, and also played the second most minutes on the team. His production will surely benefit from the lack of wing players on this team and the surplus of guards. Osman also worked out with LeBron and friends in the offseason, so he is sure to have a few new tricks up his sleeve. Look for Cedi to establish himself as one of the most reliable foreign players in today’s game.

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8. The San Antonio Spurs will comfortably make the playoffs with 50+ wins

Despite the lack of playing experience in San Antonio, DeMar DeRozan looks completely at home in San Antonio. Pop will surely maximize his abilities on the floor and tighten his defensive skillset to make him another MVP candidate this season. With Dejounte Murray out for the year, DeRozan will surely have the ball in his hands more frequently. LaMarcus Aldridge has shown that he can still play at a high level, and Rudy Gay continues to produce consistent offensive results. Keep in mind that the Spurs made the playoffs last year without Kawhi, so the addition of DeRozan puts them at another level.

9. Portland won’t make the playoffs, forcing a rebuild

The Trailblazers dug their own grave when they decided to pay Myers Leonard, Evan Turner and Mo Harkless the big bucks. These guys are decent players, but none of them should make more than $10 million annually, if that. It doesn’t help that they drafted two guards and spent their offseason adding, what do you know, another guard. Considering that Lillard and McCollum should each play at least 33 minutes per game respectively if they want a shot at greatness, that does not leave much time for the rest of their young prospects to develop or for Seth Curry to make a difference. Should they go with a smaller lineup, they will be consistently manhandled by western teams loaded with players that have freakish wingspans. Zach Collins, their lottery pick from last year, looks like a flop and sits behind Jusuf Nurkic at center to highlight an especially weak group at the forward positions. Portland will need to offload one of their stars in a deal that frees up cap space for them, and barring any interesting moves, it looks like they are headed for disaster.

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10. Terry Rozier will be traded before the deadline

Scary Terry put himself on the map last season, and with Kyrie verbalizing his long-term commitment to Boston, it doesn’t seem like the Celtics will be able to hold on to Rozier much longer. Marcus Smart has proven to be a serviceable backup and just signed an extension. Boston will look to get value out of Rozier before he leaves for nothing in the next offseason, and with teams like Phoenix, Denver, Orlando and Indiana still looking for a long-term solution at point guard, they could get some great assets in return.

 

Let’s Talk About the Western Conference: Too Much Talent

It is unbelievably difficult to predict the outcome of this upcoming Western Conference regular season. A few certainties come to mind, but only two teams seem unwaveringly destined to miss the playoffs. The Sacramento Kings and Dallas Mavericks are not ready to make the jump yet, with promising times ahead, and the rest of the conference is a crapshoot. On the top end of the standings, we can confidently say that the Warriors and the Rockets will capture the top two spots, but as we saw in the standings this past year where three wins differentiated the third seed and the ninth seed, we are guaranteed to see an extremely close battle. Here is how things may pan out:

The Favorites

Golden State Warriors:

Boogie won’t be ready for an NBA return until at least after the All-Star break, but that won’t stop a team of four more all-stars from remaining atop the league. The team will experiment with interesting rotations all throughout the season as they prioritize keeping their Hamptons Five lineup healthy, which could result in some surprising losses. This will come as no reason for worry, given that the Warriors are sure to step up come playoff time. Today’s NBA dynasty should have no problem continuing their reign.

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Houston Rockets:

Last year, we saw the Rockets finish seven wins higher than the Warriors in the regular season, amassing the best record in the league by far. While the title for best record may be in jeopardy based on the nightly competition that they should face in comparison to the Celtics, Houston should still finish comfortably in first or second in the West. As long as they re-sign Clint Capela and add Carmelo Anthony to fill the void left by Trevor Ariza’s departure, the Rockets should continue to be the team with the best chances of taking down Golden State.

Formidable Challengers

Oklahoma City Thunder:

Less is more for OKC, who certainly got a lot better by getting rid of Melo. While their roster is currently noticeably devoid of shooters, the talent on the team is certainly undeniable. On paper, the Thunder should have no problem being among the league leaders in defense (Westbrook, George, Roberson, Patterson, Noel, Adams), and added an underrated NBA point guard in Dennis Schroder. Props to GM Sam Presti for making a stagnant Thunder team better while also monumentally decreasing their luxury tax bill. If this team finds its stroke, they could certainly make a run that we would’ve expected last season.

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Los Angeles Lakers:

Any team with LeBron James on its roster immediately becomes a contender. The best player in the world has possibly his most interesting supporting cast ever going into this season, and one can only imagine that this season is serving as a setup season for the Lakers. The King has committed long term, and LA has several wildcards on one-year deals (Beasley, Rondo, Stephenson, KCP, McGee). Couple that with possibly the most promising young core in the game (Ingram, Kuzma, Ball, Hart), and we will surely see some intriguing basketball coming out of LA this year. It remains to be seen how far LeBron can take this rag-tag bunch come playoff time.

Portland Trail Blazers:

We can’t overlook the fact that Portland took the third seed in the West last season, but I’m not a big fan of the moves that they have made in the offseason thus far. The Trail Blazers are limited in the players that they could attract to such a small market, but they have stockpiled (undersized) guards and completely ignored their needs at the wing. Sure, it’s reassuring to have so much backup for Lillard and McCollum (Curry, Baldwin IV, Stauskas, Trent Jr., Simons), but in a constantly improving Western Conference, I’m not sure a starting lineup that includes Al Farouq Aminu and Mo Harkless will be enough. Look for Portland to underperform despite their lofty expectations, thus forcing a full rebuild come next offseason.

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On the Rise

Utah Jazz:

I love the identity of this Jazz team that prides itself on defensive stability. This team has solid depth but lacks star power and a scoring punch. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are certainly all-star caliber players, but Gobert is somewhat of an offensive liability and Mitchell lacks experience. That didn’t stop the latter from making a ton of noise in the playoffs last season, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him lead his team to yet another playoff berth.

New Orleans Pelicans:

The Pelicans’ commitment to position-less basketball is one of the most refreshing aspects of any NBA team. Elfrid Payton has plenty to prove this season, while AD looks poised to be one of the league’s most likely MVP candidates. The dominance that he showed in the playoffs last year speaks to the fact that he could be the next best player in the NBA. Mirotic and Randle each have the requisite ability to make up for the talent lost when Boogie decided to ruin the NBA, but New Orleans will have to fight on a nightly basis if they want to come out of the West in the toughest conference we have probably ever seen in the NBA.

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Minnesota Timberwolves:

When we talk about the Timberwolves, we need to think about the healthy Timberwolves. When Jimmy Butler wasn’t sitting on the sidelines, this team was slotted in as the third seed in the West. After his injury, they fell down the standings, but Butler is expected to stay healthy this upcoming season and KAT is looking to take another step in his career. Minnesota may be a bit less deep than they were last season, but they bring back all of their starters and could make some noise in the West with a legitimate big three.

Denver Nuggets:

The Nuggets missed out on playoff contention this past season in dramatic fashion, but they should find their way back into the race this upcoming season. This team has had probably one of the most successful free agencies, extending Jokic, drafting MPJ, and bringing on Isaiah Thomas. Their young core should continue to develop nicely and I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw Isaiah revitalize his career in Denver. Paul Millsap also missed most of the past season, and will be looking to find his rhythm in a comeback season. Expect big things coming out of Denver.

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Wildcards

Phoenix Suns:

This Phoenix roster certainly has the talent to compete, but we don’t know how quickly they could be making that jump. With a bevy of young talents (Booker, Ayton, Jackson, Bender, Chriss, Bridges, Okobo), Phoenix certainly has a bright future; the question is, how long will it take them to develop into contenders? With excellent veteran presence coming from Tyson Chandler and Trevor Ariza, we could see a huge jump in wins coming out of Phoenix. Sadly, however, it likely won’t be enough to beat some of these other powerhouse teams into the top eight spots.

Memphis Grizzlies:

Many teams are likely counting the Grizzlies out given their nightmare of a season in 2017-2018, but we forget about how much Mike Conley means to this franchise. Their window continues to shrink as Marc Gasol continues to age, but new recruits like Jaren Jackson Jr. and Kyle Anderson could turn this team around quickly. Nobody really knows what to expect from the Grizzlies this upcoming season, and despite being in prime position to improve on last year’s win total, they should still fall short of playoff contention.

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Los Angeles Clippers:

The Clippers have a ton of above average players, with not a single player who can be labeled as a star. They’ll surely be extremely difficult to play against on a regular basis, featuring some of the best depth in the league at pretty much every position. However, if they have any chance of making the playoffs, they need a player like Tobias Harris or Danilo Gallinari to step up and provide more of a scoring punch. They won’t be earning a spot in the top eight with Lou Williams as their leading scorer. Despite so many “if’s”, it is also worth noting that the Clippers were one of the most injured teams last season, and could be much more successful this year if healthy.

San Antonio Spurs:

We can never count the Spurs out when Pop is coaching. This team obviously lost their best player recently, but has retained depth at every spot on the floor. In addition, keep in mind that this team won 47 games last year essentially without Kawhi, so technically, DeMar DeRozan is surely an upgrade. Expect the Spurs to contend until the very end of the season, where they could just barely miss out on contention on the fact that their team is simply less talented than the other ones.

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Western Conference Standings Projections

1. Houston Rockets

Houston will once again care more about the regular season than Golden State will, which will therefore result in the first seed. When Chris Paul is healthy, the rockets are arguably unstoppable, and present a legitimate threat at dethroning the Warriors.

2. Golden State Warriors

We must remember how late Boogie will come back, leaving GSW relatively thin at the center position for most of the regular season. They’ll still probably win more than 55 games, though, if not 60.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

The friendship that Russell Westbrook and Paul George have developed speaks for itself. I think that without Melo, this duo will exhibit incredible chemistry to lead them to a resurgent season where they capture the third seed. Keep in mind that the team underperformed last year, and still got the fourth seed.

4. Minnesota Timberwolves

Minnesota simply needs to live up to their talent. Questions about Butler’s long-term commitment to the T-Wolves still remain, but winning solves everything. If Andrew Wiggins can finally make that next step and Karl Anthony-Towns keeps developing, the potential of this team is limitless.

5. New Orleans Pelicans

AD for MVP, I’m calling it now. Anthony Davis is going to will this team all season long; they likely won’t have much success in the playoffs, but they’ll sure be a fun team to watch during the season. I’m excited to see how Julius Randle fares on his new team, as he showed some stellar play in his contract year with the Lakers.

6. Utah Jazz

Despite finishing fifth last season, the Jazz will likely take a step back next year once they see that the rest of the West has come to play. Regardless, they’re sure to be in the playoff picture. Look for Utah to offer max money next offseason after they’re butted out in the first round.

7. Los Angeles Lakers

How about a first-round matchup between GSW and LeBron? The King is notorious for taking it easy during the regular season and stepping it up come playoff time. LeBron’s Cavs finished in fourth place in the East last year, and in a more competitive conference, he could drop even further. This team is built to take on the Warriors, not to beat the rest of the league. Keep in mind that I’m expected seeds 3-10 to be incredibly close, as well.

8. Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets could finish higher depending on how well Isaiah bounces back, but the fact remains that their best passer is their center. The Nuggets will easily be among the league’s best in points per game, but could also improve on the defensive end. However, it is undeniable that their team is tailor made for today’s NBA, and it’ll be interesting to see how high Nikola Jokic’s ceiling really is.

 

Why the Spurs Should Be Okay with Kawhi Leaving

Uncertainty with his Condition

Regardless of whether Kawhi will return to the court completely healthy, the Spurs organization likes to maintain a handle on its entire operation. They have done their utmost to keep rumors to a minimum, but they would highly benefit from keeping damage control out of their main agenda. Additionally, if Kawhi is indeed a different player than he was before the injury, the Spurs would do well to gain as many assets as possible on his behalf as long as the opportunity still stands. It seems as though his trade value currently puts San Antonio in the position to receive three major pieces in exchange for his services. This would likely include a first round draft pick and two promising young players (at least), which would perfectly set the Spurs up to groom a complete roster.

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Being Above Average does Nothing for Franchises in Today’s NBA

Gregg Popovich showed us last season that he can take a slightly above average roster to the playoffs, even in the West. Teams like the Nuggets and Clippers seemingly had talented rosters, but Pop’s tutelage makes anything possible. Regardless, there is only so much that wondrous coaching can do, and even Brad Stevens’ awe-inspiring playoff run last season came to an end when it was time to face star power. The same goes for stacking up against teams like the Warriors, Rockets and Lakers. The Spurs have made it abundantly clear that they will not be tanking any time soon, and I do believe that this is the right decision. They will likely wait until Pop’s retirement to even consider doing so, and a team with such a historically savvy front office can certainly pull off a trade that gets them the right assets to continue contending. I don’t think San Antonio has a prayer in 2018, but the same cannot be said for the forthcoming year, when tons of promising free agents hit the market. If they can muscle out one season of mediocrity while prioritizing the development of the rest of their roster, San Antonio can surely take big steps in bringing their organization back to the forefront.

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Thinking Long Term

In order to understand why the Spurs would benefit from trading Kawhi, we must understand the assets that they will receive in return. This will likely include talented young players on attractive contracts, setting the team up to experiment next season. They did well to retain Rudy Gay on a one-year deal, who can easily slot into Kawhi’s position and continue to improve on the progress that he showed last season after coming back from an Achilles tendon tear a season prior. Danny Green and Manu Ginobili each have one more year on their deals, and they will prove to be helpful mentors for Lonnie Walker IV who fell to them in the draft. The Miami product has a high basketball IQ and finds himself in a perfect situation heading into the future. These three, along with the return of Marco Belinelli gives them plenty of shooting depth to fully embrace the emerging high scoring style of the NBA. At point guard, Dejounte Murray is now set for heavy minutes at a bargain price as he continues to develop. Pau Gasol will be overpaid in 2018-2019, but this year will surely work more as a period of transition in which San Antonio can afford to give him the money. Only $7 million of his $16 million deal is guaranteed for 2019-2020, giving them flexibility in their frontcourt. Lastly, LaMarcus Aldridge revitalized his career last season, and should continue to produce at a high level as he poises himself for another year as the go-to player on offense. Essentially, most of the Spurs’ mediocre players (Gay, Ginobili, Green, Gasol) will either find a different home next offseason or take salaries that give San Antonio plenty of options in the future. Many stars will be looking for a payday next summer, and the Spurs will be one of the franchises who will be able to afford to do so.

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Surely, Kawhi Leonard is a top-five player in the NBA when healthy, and it is not the ideal scenario to have to let him go. However, his relationship with the Spurs seems more irreparable with every coming day, and with two years on his deal remaining (the last year being a player option), he still commands plenty of value on the trade market and can set San Antonio up with a promising roster for the future. The key is that they must be patient in waiting on a trade offer that adequately suits their needs, while also making sure to not miss out on their window of opportunity to get something out of Kawhi’s hope for an exit.

Let’s Talk About the Eastern Conference: What LeBron’s Lakers Move Means

As every media reporter has been reiterating, LeBron’s move to the LA Lakers has created a ripple effect all across the league. Kawhi Leonard has set his sights on Los Angeles, none of the Lake show’s young stars are safe, and the Eastern Conference is wide open. The Celtics and the Sixers emerge as the clear front runners, but there are a few other teams who could vie for contention. Surely, the Raptors feel less pressure to force a full rebuild, and other teams will be sure to capitalize on the opportunity to have a clear-cut opportunity at making the finals. Here are the contenders of the East:

The Favorites

Boston Celtics: Boston has achieved a great mix of grooming home-grown talent and picking up pieces along the way. Even without re-signing Marcus Smart, Boston currently features nine players on their roster who should get regular minutes (Irving, Hayward, Horford, Tatum, Morris, Brown, Rozier, Baynes, Williams). This kind of depth mixed with star power poises the Celtics to achieve immense success in both the regular season and the postseason. The Celtics’ postseason success this past season while lacking their two best players only further accentuates the excitement reverberating throughout New England about where this team is headed in the near future. These guys are the favorites to make the finals from the East.

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Philadelphia 76ers
: So young, yet so promising. Considering the fact that the Sixers refuse to include Fultz in trade talks, my guess is that Philly is confident that the formal first overall pick can make up for lost time. With plenty of cap space to make noise in the offseason, Philly needs to act quickly if they want to add another talent to join the likes of Embiid and Simmons. However, with their entire core locked up through the 2019-2020 season, they’re in no rush to splash cash this offseason, especially with such a talented free agent class expected in a year. Considering their success last year, coupled with their youth, NBA pundits would be doing a disservice if they were not to label the Sixers as the Celtics’ biggest rivals heading into 2018.

Formidable Challengers

Toronto Raptors: In some peoples’ eyes, the Raptors are in great position heading into 2018. All of the players who contributed to their immense regular season success last season are returning, and save for Delon Wright, are locked up for two more years. However, to those who choose to look at their situation with the glass half empty, Toronto has been pigeonholed financially in a way that would only be alleviated by getting rid of a star. They have limited flexibility in terms of free agency and would struggle to change their roster whatsoever. Their main priority needs to be getting rid of Serge Ibaka’s contract, but they could choose to use the opportunity of a LeBron-less East to test their luck with riding out their roster.

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Washington Wizards: The Wizards are getting Demarcus Cousins. The Wizards are getting Demarcus Cousins. I’m just going to keep repeating it until it actually happens. The entire NBA needs to remember their 2017 success as a means of understanding that they are one player away from getting out of the East. Otto Porter can make the argument that he is worth every penny that he is getting paid, but not on a team like the Wizards. Porter isn’t a role player per se, but he simply fills out a specific role on the floor; no matter how efficiently this role is carried out, they shouldn’t be paying him this kind of money. If a sign-and-trade for Cousins is carried out by the Wiz and Pelicans, a mutually beneficial agreement can be reached that sends D.C. into full-on contention for the Finals crown. Even without this kind of acquisition, Washington will present a threat to any team on any given night, especially with their backcourt depth.

Indiana Pacers: The reason the Pacers did so well this past season is because of their team chemistry. Each player was asked to fulfill a specific role, and they nailed this to a tee. Indiana will go for bigger-name free agents and will also look to sign players to bargain multi-year deals, but they should hold off on going win-now mode for one more year. The focus will be to continue grooming Oladipo into a bonafide NBA star, and to see that Myles Turner turns into a star in his own right. Indiana will have only five players on their books in 2019 as of now (Oladipo, Sabonis, Leaf, Anigbogu, McDermott), which gives them a ton of flexibility. Look for them to spend big next offseason, but to take the conservative route and still try to contend with their current personnel this upcoming year.

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On the Rise:

Milwaukee Bucks: This team likely has the most questions to answer this offseason than any other team on this list. Giannis is locked up, but Bledsoe’s situation is questionable, and Middleton will likely opt out and ask for a payday next offseason. Jabari Parker doesn’t know where he’ll be playing yet, and Milwaukee clearly needs more talent to be where they want to be. The Bucks will continue to shift around their roster, and should be looking for short-term help to drive them over the hump. They’ll have to make some trades, first, in order to clear out some cap space for game-changing players. Dellavedova, Henson, Bledsoe and Snell seem to be the most viable trade candidates.

Detroit Pistons: Detroit is looking to put an end to their mediocrity. Dwane Casey’s hiring clearly shows that the Pistons are looking to head in a new direction, and their dominating frontcourt poises them to get back into the playoffs. They still don’t have enough to be vying for title contention, but with Drummond and Griffin committed until 2021, they have plenty of time to figure it out. The question remains whether they’ll settle for mediocrity in the coming seasons or make some moves to clear out cap space for better players. With plenty of free agency to go, we will see what they choose to do.

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Eastern Conference Standings Projections

1. Boston Celtics

Boston’s roster is head and shoulders the most talented pool of players in the East. Given the lack of talent in this conference, they could wind up sending four players to the All-Star game: Tatum, Brown, Irving and Hayward. This would be a significant development, as their only all-star last season was Al Horford, illustrating their depth. Danny Ainge’s move this offseason should be to not move a muscle – unless it is to re-sign his players.

2. Toronto Raptors

I’m not a huge fan of this Raptors team, but given that they demonstrated huge regular season success with the same roster, they should be able to replicate these results to a slightly lower degree. If I’m a member of Toronto’s front office, I would just ride out this roster in hopes that a LeBron-less east means a clear path to the Finals.

3. Washington Wizards

The success that I see the Wizards having is completely predicated on their potential acquisition of Demarcus Cousins. Still, despite having three All-NBA caliber players on the same roster if Boogie were to make a move to DC, it would take some time for him to gel with his new teammates in the capitol. Look for them to have greater postseason success than regular season success.

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4. Philadelphia 76ers

I’m not completely sold on Philly’s “process” just yet. I have a feeling that they’ll fail to attract any of the major free agents this offseason and settle for gambling on Isaiah Thomas to return to form, but this is a gamble that I hope pays off. The Sixers’ regular season success last season came because of an end-of-season win streak mostly against teams in tank mode, racing for the best draft pick possible. Unless Ben Simmons can find a jump shot and Embiid can stay healthy, I see them finding the same amount of success as last season. We’ll have to wait for them to take the jump.

5. Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks will go as far as Giannis takes them. They underperformed last year, but I expect the Greek Freak to be one of the league’s front runners for MVP. They should be making moves to improve their roster this offseason, and could look towards the services of Dwight Howard to improve their frontcourt and possibly Dennis Schroder to provide competition for Bledsoe. Very excited to see how the Bucks do.

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6. Indiana Pacers

Indy ought to be excited about how their team is shaping up. Their roster can only grow, but their pure lack of star power puts them this low on the list. I’d liken them to the Spurs in the sense that despite the fact that they need more talent, their players fit very well on their roster, and they should perform well enough to earn a playoff spot. Look for Indy to make a few more offseason moves; hopefully, for Tyreke Evans.

7. Detroit Pistons

With the softening of the East, the Pistons will actually feel no pressure to win now, because their big stars are locked up for a few more years. They have the talent to test their frontcourt in the postseason, but should be focused on offloading Jackson, Leuer and Galloway to make room for other pieces. Detroit could very well be on the rise very soon, but they’ll have to wait to break into the very best of the East.

8. Brooklyn Nets

Here’s my wildcard pick. The eighth spot in the East is as wide open as can be, and the Cavs and Heat look likely to miss out on the playoffs after making it this past season. Miami is Brooklyn’s biggest competition, but their cap situation limits their activity this offseason, and Dragic continues to get older. The Nets have a solid young core that doesn’t get paid much, so it wouldn’t be surpised if they picked up a few more pieces to edge out a playoff spot in the East. This could be the year that D’Angelo Russell breaks out and maximizes his potential.

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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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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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