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The Three-Team Race For Eighth

With approximately two weeks remaining in the NBA regular season, the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference is a three-team race. The New York Knicks, Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers all have a chance to qualify for the right to face either the Miami Heat or the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the playoffs.

Let’s take a look at how the race has intensified over the last several weeks. 

New York Knicks

The Knicks' troubles are mostly on the defensive end where they rank 25th in defensive efficiency, but they haven’t improved much defensively as of late. Rather, their improvement at the other end of the floor is the reason for their 11-3 record over their last 14 games.

Stat

Offensive Eff

Defensive EFF

Net EFf

Full Season

105.2

106.7

-1.5

Last 14

112.8

106.2

+6.6 

One might think the improved offense is a result of some new strategy but it seems that the Knicks are simply making more of the shots that they have been taking all season. They have traded some of their 2-point attempts for more 3’s but not by a significant amount. And they aren’t assisting much more or turning it over much less than their season average either. The two main reasons for the offensive uptick have been increased playing time for Amar’e Stoudemire and more accurate shooting from J.R. Smith.

Mike Woodson has bolstered the offense simply by giving Stoduemire more minutes. Stoudemire's field goal percentage has hovered right around 55% all season and he’s able to get to the free throw line better than anyone on the roster other than Carmelo Anthony. More time for an efficient scorer like Stoudemire has unsurprisingly led to improved offense.

Over the last 14 games, J.R. Smith’s field goal percentage has been about 6 percentage points better than his season average but it’s not because he’s taking better shots. In fact, he’s taking and making more unassisted 3-pointers, which are shots that don’t tend to be the most successful. His 3-pointer on the first possession of Wednesday night’s game against the Nets exemplifies the kind of shot that Smith has been making more of recently.

http://on.nba.com/1q7zil8

Stoudemire’s increased playing time and Smith’s improved shooting accuracy have enabled the Knicks to vault themselves into serious contention for the 8th seed in the Eastern conference. 

Atlanta Hawks

Many thought the Hawks would fall apart when they lost Al Horford to a torn pectoral muscle for the season in late December. Initially, it seemed as if they would be able to hang on to a playoff position, as they garnered a 9-8 record in their first 17 games without Horford. Since the start of February, however, they have fallen apart because of injuries to first time all-star Paul Millsap and sharpshooter Kyle Korver. 

When Millsap sat out for five games at the end of February and beginning of March, the Hawks’ defense collapsed. They allowed over 100 points to the Bulls and Celtics (two of the bottom three eams in the league in terms of offensive efficiency) and 129 points to the Suns. Losing Millsap forced Hawks Mike Budenholzer to play Mike Scott and DeMarre Carroll at the power forward position where both are unequipped to deal with opposing big men. Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah had their way with the thin Hawks frontline and the Celtics badly took advantage of Atlanta on the offensive glass.

Korver’s injury demonstrated his value to the team’s offense, as the Hawks were largely incapable of scoring during his absence. The Hawks failed to break 90 in three of the six games that Korver missed, two of which were against average defenses in the Portland Trail Blazers and the Minnesota Timberwolves. Those poor showings reflect the Hawks reliance on Korver’s perimeter excellence (and simply the threat of him being there) to fuel their offense, especially without Horford.

Since Horford Injury

 

Minutes

Offensive Rating

Korver ON

1281

103.5

Korver OFF

841

99.0

http://on.nba.com/1lG3u7C

Check out this play where the threat of Korver coming off a curl screen creates an opening for Millsap to get a look at the rim. Plays like this one demonstrate how Korver’s value on offense comes from his shooting and his ability to create openings for others. His shooting prowess enables him to attract the attention of the defense just by being on the floor and the result is easier shot attempts for his teammates.

The Hawks record hasn’t been good without Horford, but that is largely due to the fact that they are 1-11 when either Millsap or Korver has had to sit out. With Millsap and Korver playing (since Horford went down) the Hawks’ record is a respectable 15-18. Atlanta can ill afford to lose Millsap or Korver again during their final 8 games if they want to make the playoffs over the Knicks and the resurgent Cleveland Cavaliers.

Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavaliers' newly assembled roster was finally starting to mesh when they were victorious in consecutive games on the road against the Suns and the Warriors. Unfortunately, Kyrie Irving went down with a biceps injury in the following game and the Cavs lost their next four. However, that losing streak included competitive games against the Heat, Thunder, and Rockets. Further positive signs emerged when the Cavs defeated the Knicks, Raptors, and Pacers in the same week without Irving. 

It is tempting to point to Irving’s absence as the explanation for the aforementioned victories but in reality, those wins represented an extension of the positive signs that were on display in the wins against Phoenix and Golden State.  In the 9 games without Irving, the Cavs offensive efficiency didn’t improve much but it didn’t decline either, which is surprising given that they were missing their leading scorer. The offense was able to maintain its level of production because everybody became more willing to share the ball. The Cavs averaged 21.1 assists per game in the first 11 games with Hawes and 23.6 assists per game in the following nine games in which Irving sat out. Two players in particular increased their number of assists in the aforementioned nine games.

2/21 – 3/14 (With Kyrie & Hawes)

Player

Assists/48

USG

AST/USG

Dion Waiters

4.1

31.2%

13.14

Luol Deng

2.9

20.2%

14.36

3/16 – 3/30 (With Hawes & No Kyrie)

Player

Assists/48

USG

AST/USG

Dion Waiters

6.2

27.9%

22.22

Luol Deng

5.0

20.8%

24.04 

Both Dion Waiters and Luol Deng averaged more assists per 48 minutes after Irving’s injury. And that’s not only because they had the ball more. Waiters, in particular, increased his assists despite seeing his usage rate decline. He has showed an increased willingness to create plays for his teammates rather than for himself. 

http://on.nba.com/1lG7oNO

This sequence against the Toronto Raptors illustrates how the Cavs have operated more smoothly on offense as of late than they were early in the season their offense consisted mainly of stagnant isolations. In the clip, Waiters catches the ball on the wing after a pin-down screen from Hawes and then quickly moves into an elbow pick-and-roll with Varejao, which results in an easy layup.

The Cavs offense was getting better before Irving’s injury not because of it. If Coach Mike Brown can find a way to combine Waiters’ and Deng’s increased assist levels with Irving’s unique offensive skill set, the offense should improve dramatically. Perhaps even enough to vault the Cavs into the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

That’s how the bottom of the Eastern Conference got to where it is now. With two weeks to go, it’ll be interesting to see which team is able grab the eighth seed and whether that team can pose any kind of a threat to the Pacers or Heat in the first round of the playoffs. 

2014 First Round Picks (Which Teams Own The Picks?)

While RealGM has an excellent database of the draft picks that have been traded between teams, I wanted to put together a summary more focused on the upcoming draft. For the sake of clarity, this version will only deal with the first round.

Atlanta Hawks- Have the right to swap their own pick with Brooklyn’s. At this point, it appears Atlanta will just keep their own and move on.

Boston Celtics- Have their own first and the less favorable of Atlanta and Brooklyn, likely Brooklyn right now. They have a future first from the Sixers as well, but it only goes this year if Philadelphia makes the playoffs. We all know that will not happen.

Brooklyn Nets- No matter what, they lose their pick without getting one in return.

Charlotte Bobcats- Their own first goes to Chicago as long as the Bobcats stay remotely on track (top-10 protected) but they pick up Portland’s unless the Blazers effectively lose out. The lingering question is Detroit- if the pick is 1-8, the Pistons keep it but if it’s 9th or worse it goes to Charlotte. My gut feeling is that once Detroit knows they will not make the playoffs we will see a push to the bottom reminiscent of the 2012 Warriors.

Chicago Bulls- Have their own pick and Charlotte’s unless the Bobcats collapse. The Sacramento pick they acquired in the Luol Deng trade is top-12 protected so it will not come this year.

Cleveland Cavaliers- Have their own pick free and clear and no other first rounders.

Dallas Mavericks- One of the more interesting situations in the league. By having top-20 protection on their pick (it goes to Oklahoma City if it falls 21-30 this year), the Mavs could lose their pick if they make the playoffs. Right now, the bottom seeds in the West look to be about even with the 3-4 spots in the East, so it could go either way.

Denver Nuggets- They keep the better of their pick and New York’s, sending the worse one to Orlando.

Detroit Pistons- Keep their pick if it is eighth or better, otherwise it goes to Charlotte. I fully expect them to understand the incentives and lose enough to retain it.

Golden State Warriors- Their first goes to Utah no matter what.

Houston Rockets- Have their own pick free and clear and no other first rounders.

Indiana Pacers- Their pick is going to Phoenix as a part of the Luis Scola trade from last summer.

Los Angeles Clippers- Have their own pick free and clear and no other first rounders.

Los Angeles Lakers- Have their own pick free and clear and no other first rounders.

Memphis Grizzlies- Have their own pick free and clear and no other first rounders.

Miami Heat- Have their own pick free and clear and no other first rounders.

Milwaukee Bucks- Have their own pick free and clear and no other first rounders.

Minnesota Timberwolves- The pick is top-13 protected, meaning they have to make the postseason or have the best record of any non-playoff team to send it to Phoenix. At this point, it looks like the pick will be No. 13 and thus the Wolves will keep it.

New Orleans Pelicans- Their pick goes to Philadelphia unless it lands in the top-five. It will be hard for the Pelicans to jump enough of the teams “ahead” of them, but they still have a shot of jumping them in the lottery itself.

New York Knicks- They lose their pick no matter what, though the destination could change.

Oklahoma City Thunder- They have their own pick and get Dallas’ first if it ends up between 21 and 30, certainly a possibility.

Orlando Magic- Retain their own pick and get the less favorable of Denver and New York’s selections. This could end up swinging on whether the Knicks can make the playoffs- if they do, the pick falls a few spots to No. 15.

Philadelphia 76ers- They keep their own pick as long as they miss the playoffs (just a formality at this point) and pick up one from New Orleans as long as it falls outside the top five.

Phoenix Suns- They have their own pick and Indiana’s on lock and appear likely to pick up Washington’s since the Wizards should make the playoffs. Minnesota’s pick has top-13 protection, so I expect the Suns to only end up with three this year.

Portland Trail Blazers- Their pick is going to Charlotte unless the Blazers have a truly epic collapse.

Sacramento Kings- Their pick has top-12 protection, so the Kings look like they will keep it even if they rattle off some late-season wins.

San Antonio Spurs- Have their own pick free and clear and no other first rounders.

Toronto Raptors- Have their own pick free and clear and no other first rounders.

Utah Jazz- They have both their own pick and Golden State’s.

Washington Wizards- They will send their pick to Phoenix barring a major letdown.

The Third Contract

While justifiable and collectively bargained, the last two CBAs possess a few particularly interesting processes that have huge effects on decision-making. Some of these, like the Chandler Parsons situation (where the Rockets can pick up his super cheap team option and allow him to be Unrestricted in 2015 or decline it to have him Restricted this summer] and the repeater luxury tax get plenty of ink. However, one of the more interesting impacts comes from a more abstract place and deserves more attention.

In today’s NBA, most players have very little control over their destination for their first two contracts. The first typically comes by being drafted so the athlete has almost zero say in where he ends up. For high level players in particular, the gigantic disincentives in terms of financial security have meant that only Ben Gordon (not risking as much because a max deal was not on the table) has declined extending and spent two seasons in peril in exchange for unrestricted free agency.

These factors combine to create a fascinating set of circumstances when the second contract ends, as the best players have spent 7-9 years in the NBA (likely in the same city) and are just entering their primes in most cases. After having all that time with zero say, a vast majority of them enter the free agent market because the current extension rules are not favorable for young players due to limitations on contract length.

As such, the league sees high-level players able to be truly wooed for the first time in their professional careers with dramatically weaker disincentives to leave and a new CBA that makes sign-and-trades a less useful proposition. The combination of complete freedom and years of team control means that the third contract typically marks the first time we really get to know what a player wants in the short and long-term.

LeBron James and Chris Bosh used their third contract to join forces with Dwyane Wade and have reached the NBA Finals  in every season since The Decision.

Dwight Howard spurned the Lakers to make the Rockets a new Western Conference contender.

Ten years ago, Kobe Bryant publicly flirted with the Clippers before returning to the Lakers.

The third contract carries so much intrigue because as much as we think we know about NBA players, they never have the choices available to them earlier in their careers. There are plenty of valid reasons for someone to select their next location: team quality, connections with their current team, a good front office and/or coach, and a nice city to live in often carry weight in these circumstances. That said, each and every individual values those factors in different ways and can see the same landscape meaningfully differently. Thanks to a confluence of events from David Kahn not putting a five-year deal on the table for Kevin Love to opposing teams being restricted to offering four-year offer sheets, the next few summers will be full of tantalizing young talent finally gaining the freedom to go where they want.

Summer of 2014

All-Star snub Kyle Lowry looks to capitalize on a big season by being an unrestricted free agent for the first time.

Luol Deng and Emeka Okafor will also experience free agency for the first time since their second contracts were six-year deals grandfathered into the new CBA.

Rudy Gay has the choice of entering this class or the next one thanks to his big player option.

Astonishingly, Andrew Bogut would have joined this UFA first-timers group had he not signed an extension with the Warriors over the summer. Bogut has never been a free agent of any type in the NBA and will not be until 2017 with 12 years of service at that point.

While some people are already saying he may be close to done, Danny Granger gets an asterisk since he was a free agent this week but will have his first summer on the open market. 

Summer of 2015

While Kevin Love generates the most headlines, the third contract group for 2015 runs incredibly deep. Likely Defensive Player of the Year Roy Hibbert joins 13-14 DPOY Marc Gasol on the unrestricted market assuming Hibbert declines his player option.

If those three All-Star bigs were not enough, Brook Lopez has a player option as well and could leave Brooklyn if the team disappoints between now and then. His twin brother, Robin, will be in this class too, which could be something to watch considering their close relationship. In case this group needed another big, Robin’s current teammate LaMarcus Aldridge can select his team as well and should generate major interest around the league. You can add in DeAndre Jordan as the cherry on top.

Thanks to a five-year extension under the old CBA, Rajon Rondo will hit unrestricted free agency for the first time in 2015.  Rudy Gay, another member of the 2006 draft class, joins the group if he picks up his player option this summer. Philadelphia forward Thaddeus Young can add himself to the mix if he declines his option year while Arron Afflalo could be here as well if he declines his fifth year player option.

Finally, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin will have a more normal free agency after back-loaded contracts as RFAs landed both of them in Houston while Wesley Matthews gets his chance after a “poison pill” deal put him in Portland two years before Daryl Morey got his two.

Summer of 2016

Kevin Durant gets the top of the marquee (as he should) but this strong group also includes Joakim Noah, Noah's Florida teammate Al Horford, and Mike Conley. Incredibly, Dwight Howard could be gunning for his fourth contract the same summer since he signed a deal with Houston that made his fourth season a player option.

Interesting starters like Ryan Anderson, Nicolas Batum, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Brandon Jennings and Eric Gordon (if he picks up his option) could join the party too.

Summer of 2017

Likely the first group of players to become UFAs under the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, Thunder teammates Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka and former teammate James Harden headline a group that includes Derrick Rose (get healthy!), DeMar DeRozan, Tiago Splitter, Taj Gibson, Jrue Holiday, George Hill, and Tyreke Evans.

We should see a vast majority of these players hit true unrestricted free agency since the current CBA limits the length of non-rookie extensions to three years after the end of their existing contract. Since these individuals should be good enough to get four or more, I fully expect them to maximize their potential security and enjoy getting wooed for the first time as professionals. This shifted reality could lead to the power dynamics in the league changing more frequently than under previous agreements and make July 1 a much more interesting time each year.

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