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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. 

RealGM Interview: Tim Hardaway Jr.

The 2013-14 season hasn’t gone as planned for the New York Knicks after tinkering with a roster in the offseason that won 54 games last year and now find themselves counting on luck to scratch into the playoffs.

Whether or not they catch the Atlanta Hawks for the eighth seed in the season’s final weeks, the Knicks can still carry two positives over to next season -- the addition of Phil Jackson to the front office and the play of Tim Hardaway, Jr.

There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding New York’s short-term future, namely Carmelo Anthony and all their expensive contracts, but Hardaway provides a glimmer of hope. The 24th overall pick last June, Hardaway would likely be a top-10 pick if the class was re-drafted.

Regardless of where he was selected, Hardaway entered the NBA with an advantage over most rookies. The son of five-time All-Star Tim Hardaway, he has been rubbing elbows with professional athletes since birth.

“It makes it a lot easier, just having him and having been around the locker room before and after games,” Hardaway told RealGM this month. “I went to every game when I had an opportunity to, it was great and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I feel like I’m luckier than other rookies in that respect.”

The relationship between the father and son is an infamous one. Hardaway had nothing but positive and loving things to say about his father, but many believe he was passed over by college programs because of Tim Sr.’s presence. The older Hardaway has since admitted that he was probably too hard on his only son.

“The physicality is way more different. These guys are strong, grown men, not dudes that just come out of high school,” Hardaway said of the difference between now and his father’s playing days.

“You’ve got to go out there and play ball, you can’t be lazy or slow out there -- you can’t show it. You have to go out there and have fun, play smart and know your angles.”

As a high school freshman, Hardaway was briefly a two-sport athlete. He joined the football team in order to stay in shape and add muscle to his athletic frame.

“My freshmen year I played both,” he said. “Me and a couple of the guys on the basketball team went out and played football, more so for the lifting and to keep stay in shape and have an activity to do outside of basketball.”

He transferred to Miami Palmetto High School before his sophomore year and focused solely on basketball, foregoing football because “my Dad didn’t want me to do it anymore.” Still, his brief flirtation with football left him feeling stronger, quicker and even more athletic.

Michigan contacted Hardaway during his sophomore season and courted him for the better part of two years. He had a successful freshman campaign that ended with him receiving an invite to participate in the tryouts for the 2011 FIBA Under-19 World Championships with USA Basketball. He was selected to the team and averaged 9.4 points and 2.1 rebounds per game on 43.3 percent shooting in nine games.

Two years later Hardaway was one of many players with NBA-level talent on a Wolverines squad that lost to Louisville in the National Championship Game. He had 12 points, five rebounds and four assists in his final game as an amateur.

“We had so much talent,” Hardaway said of the 2013 Michigan squad that also featured Trey Burke, who was drafted ninth overall by the Utah Jazz.

Landing with the Knicks seemed like an ideal situation for Hardaway, who would earn significant time on a team that had holes on the wing and playoff aspirations.

“I think it’s going pretty good,” said Hardaway when asked about his rookie season. “The season hasn’t gone the way we wanted it to go, but at the same time we’re still competing and we’re still out there having a good time. We’re trying to finish strong.”

Hardaway has played in all but one of New York’s games this season and his role as a sparkplug off the bench has remained constant. In 69 games, he is averaging 10.0 points and 1.6 rebounds in 23 minutes.

“Nothing as changed,” he said when asked about his place in the rotation. “I’m still the guy to bring energy, the guy who will come off the bench and do whatever the team needs me to do. I try to get the ball, make plays and go out there and make shots. Whatever the coaches want to see from me.”

He is shooting 50.2 percent from two-point range and 36.3 percent from three, which ranks third among all qualified rookies. The two players ahead of him, Ryan Kelly and C.J. McCollum, have taken 178 combined threes to Hardaway’s 303 attempts.

Hardaway’s familiarity with the NBA helped him adjust quickly to the next level, but not everything has come easily to the rookie. For example, defending LeBron James is an otherworldly task.

“I had only seen LeBron when he was off the court,” he admitted. “Once he puts those shoes on and steps onto the court, he’s a whole different animal. When you see that freight train coming down the lane, all you can do is foul.”

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.

Moving Beyond The Hysteria Surrounding The Knicks

In the court of public perception, the Knicks have been the victim of the mob mentality and groupthink that so commonly afflicts Basketball Twitter. If Carmelo and J.R. move the ball and play defense, they have a chance against anyone, especially if they get healthy up front.

Building The Next Knicks' Core

Can the Knicks do better than a 30-33 year old Carmelo Anthony for their No. 1 or No. 2 player for the next four years and beyond? If yes, then trading him ahead of the 2014 deadline would be the quickest way to become elite.

Why The Knicks Are In Crisis

The NBA is like the NFL -- people focus too much on the guy with the ball in his hands. As the Knicks are finding out, the irreplaceable guy was the seven-footer anchoring the defense and finishing on the pick-and-roll.

Top-60 Players In NBA Today (Considering Everything)

The goal here is look at overall long-term value of players by considering age, contract, positional scarcity and of course overall quality, without factors like a player’s connection with a franchise or fit within a specific system.

2013-14 NBA Season Preview

While the Western Conference has six teams (Clippers, Thunder, Rockets, Grizzlies, Warriors) in its first tier, the Eastern Conference is a tier of one (Heat) with the Bulls, Pacers and Nets vying for the second tier.

The Bargain Bin's Best

The days of the $6 million per year role player may be all but over. Mo Williams, Mike Miller, Beno Udrih and Wayne Ellington are at the forefront of the new market inefficiency in the NBA -- veteran role players from the free agency bargain bin.

The Preciousness Of Health

Health is why every deep playoff run is precious; it can be taken away at any time. To figure out which teams will reach The Finals, one question stands out above all the rest: who will keep their stars healthy?

The NBA's Mediocrity Treadmill Since 84-85

The treadmill is somehow both more and less common than some might think. While teams tend to fall within the 30-49 win range, as would be expected in such a competitive league, the dreaded never-ending stream of late lottery picks is uncommon.

Grading The Deal: Raptors Unload Bargnani On Knicks

Andrea Bargnani had been on the trade block for months, bridging the tenures of Bryan Colangelo to Masai Ujiri. In the GM seat for less than a month, Ujiri not only traded Bargnani but managed to pick up a few draft assets in the process to a Knicks' team limited in how to improve.

2013 NBA Mock Draft (Final Edition)

Draft day has finally arrived and while everyone pines for the 2014 class already, this one has the chance to be sneaky good in the 'many quality starters' variety.

2013 NBA Mock Draft (Wednesday/Quality Of Opp. Edition)

In this mock, we include the PER of each player based on the quality of opponent. Even statistics in this context can only go so far, but helps move beyond the possibility of inflation against competition that isn't even close to being NBA caliber.

Choosing Destinations For The 2013 Free Agency Class

The 2013 free agency class won't stop everything the way 2010 did and 2014 will, but it is strong and deep with many different possible outcomes. Here is what the top-30 players 'should' do.

2013 NBA Mock Draft (Draft Week Edition)

Entering draft week in a draft universally labeled as weak preceding the best draft of the decade, few people are talking themselves into falling in love with any specific player as fervently as usual.

2013 NBA Draft Board

Victor Oladipo, Steven Adams, Rudy Gobert, Otto Porter and Alex Len join Nerlens Noel at the top of our draft board.

The Eliminated (Knicks, Bulls, Warriors, Thunder)

The Bulls, Knicks, Warriors and Thunder won their first round series, but fell short of reaching the NBA's Final Four. Each team faces a pivotal offseason with many decisions to consider.

J.R. Smith's Game Goes Hazy As Playoffs Progress

J.R. Smith had gotten a virus on Friday night and sat for dinner here, wondering how worse it would get, wondering if he’d play. Sure enough, there was no flu game out of Smith on Saturday – just shots going awry, shots falling short, and a teetering, welcomed walk out of the Fieldhouse and into recovery time to find any resemblance of the Sixth Man.

The Real Legacy Of Rasheed Wallace

Along with Duncan, Garnett, Webber and Dirk, Rasheed Wallace redefined the power forward position and revolutionized the game. But while he was as talented as his four contemporaries, he's the only one who won't wind up in the Hall. Wallace never cared much for his image or his legacy, which is why, paradoxically enough, he became such a beloved countercultural figure.

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