Charlotte Bobcats v New York Knicks

Amar’e Stoudemire and J.R. Smith move into starting lineup, and New York Knicks roll

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The New York Knicks – of all teams – have the Eastern Conference’s longest active winning streak at four games.

Let’s get this out of the way. Their competition in the span:

  • at Timberwolves
  • vs. Jazz
  • at Cavaliers
  • vs. 76ers

Not exactly murderers’ row.

But the fact that the win streak has mostly coincided with Mike Woodson’s latest twist to the starting lineup at least offers hope the Knicks have found a combination that works for them. Amar’e Stoudemire and J.R. Smith moved into the starting unit with Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton.

Chandler missed Monday’s win over the 76ers due to personal reasons, but beating Philadelphia – by far, the worst team in the NBA right now – might just skew the sample anyway.

In the previous four games, including the Detroit loss, New York’s starting lineup had a net rating of +16.1 – producing like the equivalent of the NBA’s second-best offense (scoring 109.4 points per 100 possessions) and best defense (allowing 93.2 points per possession).

But that was in just 65 minutes, and though we’re relying on an even smaller sample here (29 minutes), that same unit was -20.6 (98.8/119.4) prior. Going from incredibly awful to incredibly great certainly lends support to the idea the quality of opposition has been the biggest change.

However, even if the results are skewed toward favorable by the recent schedule, that lineup rates well over the full season (106.3/101.2/+5.1 in 95 minutes). In 102 minutes last season, the grouping was 112.0/111.8/+0.2 – nothing special for that 54-win team, but pretty excellent for this year’s dismal squad.

If Felton-Smith-Anthony-Stoudemire-Chandler can sustain even average production, the lineup would be great progress for this season’s Knicks. The way the Hawks are free falling, losing 14 of 15 before beating the Jazz on Monday, that could even be enough for New York to make the playoffs.

The Knicks have 17 games remaining and trail Atlanta by 3.5 games, so the odds are still slim. But New York has at least a puncher’s chance with a competent lineup.

The schedule remains soft for another week – at Celtics, vs. Bucks up next – so the Knicks have an opportunity to develop confidence in this new starting lineup. For a team that has played so uninspired most of the season, that could be a big deal.

Have the Knicks really turned a corner? I doubt it. But if they can trick themselves into believing they have – and keep cleaning up against the dredges of the league – they could possibly make this playoff race interesting down the stretch.

Playoff preview: Four key questions about San Antonio Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

Oklahoma City Thunder's Kevin Durant, center, scores against the San Antonio Spurs during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
AP Photo/Eric Gay
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Between 2011 and 2014, the Spurs and Thunder combined for six Western Conferences Finals appearances with at least one reaching it each year. Last season featured Warriors vs. Rockets. This year, one – but only one – of San Antonio and Oklahoma City will return.

1. Are these Kevin Durant‘s final games with the Thunder?

Let’s get this out of the way. Durant, as you well know, will become an unrestricted free agent this summer. At this point, the best thing Oklahoma City can do to keep him is win. He knows the city. He knows the franchise. He knows the roster (which would likely return in similar form if he re-signs). Whether the Thunder send him into free agency with a good taste in his mouth is the biggest variable.

Will Durant leave just because Oklahoma City loses to the Spurs? Of course not. Will Durant stay just because Oklahoma City beats the Spurs? Of course not.

But this is a big opportunity for the Thunder to accentuate their positives – and the Spurs, another team in the Durant hunt, to do the same.

2. Who wins the Kevin Durant vs. Kawhi Leonard matchup?

More directly on the court… Durant is involved in what might be the best individual matchup of the 2016 playoffs

Durant and Leonard should both finish top five in MVP voting. If they do, it’d be the first time two players top five in MVP voting who play the same position met in the playoffs since 2012, when LeBron James and Durant faced off in the Finals.

The matchup should be fun on both ends of the court, but it’ll be particularly intriguing when Oklahoma City has the ball. Durant is one of the NBA’s best offensive players, Leonard the best defender. I can’t wait to watch them go at it.

3. How do the Spurs handle Oklahoma City’s athleticism?

In his last 20 games against San Antonio, Serge Ibaka is 15-5. Ibaka embodies the athletic advantage the Thunder hold over the Spurs. At his best, Ibaka attacks with hops and speed the Spurs’ bigs can’t match. Ibaka looked old throughout much of the regular season, but he appeared rejuvenated in the first round against the Mavericks. If he was just saving his energy for the playoffs, following the Dwight Howard model in previous years, Ibaka could play a major role.

Ditto Russell Westbrook, who will challenge Tony Parker to keep up. San Antonio could cross match with Danny Green, but that presents complications in transition.

The Spurs are collectively more skilled, but the Thunder have done a better job than most at neutralizing that advantage.

4. Has Billy Donovan found a rotation that narrows the gap?

Billy Donovan passed his first playoff test against Rick Carlisle. Now the challenge grows even greater against Gregg Popovich.

One thing Donovan did right: Putting Nick Collison, not Kyle Singler, in the playoff rotation. Collison’s minutes could be key against a Spurs team that often plays two slower bigs. I guesses Singler rather than Collison would play regularly, which lowered Oklahoma City’s adjusted net rating by a few points per 100 possessions when projecting using only players in the playoff rotation.

I’ll again use nba wowy! to rank playoff teams by regular-season net rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating), counting only lineups that include five players projected to be in the team’s postseason rotation, once the first round ends. But for now, here are San Antonio’s and Oklahoma City’s ratings, from the regular season adjusted to only lineups that include five players projected to be in the playoff rotation:

2. San Antonio Spurs

  • Offensive rating: 110.5 to 110.0
  • Defensive rating: 99.4 to 96.1
  • Net rating: +11.1 to +13.9

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

  • Offensive rating: 113.6 to 117.3
  • Defensive rating: 106.0 to 104.6
  • Net rating: +7.6 to +12.7

Both teams — already strong by this measure — benefited from beating up on their first-round competition, and the Thunder got a bump for using Collison over Singler. Oklahoma City still trails the Spurs, but the gap is much closer than overall regular-season results would suggest.

Prediction: Spurs in 7

Report: Deron Williams opting out of Mavericks contract

DALLAS, TX - NOVEMBER 03:  Deron Williams #8 of the Dallas Mavericks dribbles the ball agains Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors at American Airlines Center on November 3, 2015 in Dallas, Texas.  NOTE TO USER:  User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Deron Williams sacrificed $16 million to leave the Nets in a buyout last summer. He recouped $5,378,974 with the Mavericks this season.

Now – instead of exercising his $5,621,026 player option – he’s looking to get more.

Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

Deron Williams intends to opt out of the second season of his contract with the Mavericks, sources told ESPN.com.

Williams could return to the Mavericks. They’re one of the few teams that need a starting point guard, and two others that do – the Nets and Knicks – are probably off the table given Williams’ antipathy for a large market. Expect Dallas to at least try for an upgrade like Mike Conley first.

But even if Williams signs as a backup, he can still probably command more than $6 million next season. With the salary cap skyrocketing to about $92 million and so many teams flush with cap space, the salary picture is changing.

This also increases the Mavericks’ potential cap space.

They project to fall about $24 million under the cap, counting cap holds for Williams, Chandler Parsons (who has a player option that could go either way) and Dwight Powell. In other words, Dallas could spend that $24 million then exceed the cap to re-sign Williams, Parsons and/or Powell.

Renouncing Williams ($6,454,769 cap hold), Parsons ($19,969,950 cap hold only if he opts out) and/or Powell ($1,180,431) could clear additional cap room. Parsons opting in would restrict the Mavericks’ ability to clear space .

Williams would have been a bargain if he opted in. Instead, Dallas gains flexibility.

Report: Kings willing to trade DeMarcus Cousins because his moodiness bothers teammates

Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins walks up court during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs, Saturday, March 5, 2016, in San Antonio. San Antonio won 104-94. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)
AP Photo/Darren Abate
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The Kings, after years of shutting down DeMarcus Cousins trade rumors, will reportedly seriously explore the market.

What changed for Sacramento general manager Vlade Divac?

Ailene Voisin of The Sacramento Bee:

the sense within the organization is Divac is tempted by the prospect of pairing his center with his personally selected coach but that he has become increasingly frustrated by his center’s ongoing issues and, for the first time, is willing to test the market for the two-time All-Star.

The disconnect between Karl and Divac, and Karl and Cousins, is rivaled closely by the discord within the fragmented locker room. Apart from Rondo, Cousins has few friends among his teammates. Several players privately have complained to management about his mood swings and disrespect for those around him, including his coaches and in particular Karl.

I still doubt Sacramento trades Cousins. There’s a vast gulf between soliciting Cousins offers and actually pulling the trigger on one. He remains one of the NBA’s most valuable players – already a star, 25 and locked up for two more seasons at a reasonable $35 million combined. It’d take a haul to land him, and I doubt any team offers a package that sways Divac – though a few could have him thinking.

But Cousins’ moodiness is a problem. It gets him harmful technical fouls, takes him out of games mentally and – as we learn here – upsets his teammates.

It seems the Kings are attempting to scare him straight – reports like this leaking, including one that their next coach will have management’s backing if he wants to discipline Cousins.  They have to try something. Rajon Rondo‘s leadership, while endearing to Cousins, apparently didn’t change the center significantly enough.

I wouldn’t rule out Sacramento trading Cousins. If you put a player on the market, you might just hear an offer you like. But selling low on Cousins a – franchise-level player – would be a mistake. It’s too hard to get a player with his talent just to dump him when he’s still young.

A far better outcome would be Cousins heeding these implicit messages, maturing and cutting out the nonsense that too often overshadows his immense talent.

Tony Allen warns Mike Conley: ‘If I see you in New York or one of them places, you got a flagrant foul coming’

Memphis Grizzlies forward Tony Allen (9) and guard Mike Conley (11) react during the second half of Game 2 in a second-round NBA playoff basketball series against the Golden State Warriors in Oakland, Calif., Tuesday, May 5, 2015. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
AP Photo/Ben Margot
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Marc Gasol has a simple plan for convincing Mike Conley to re-sign with the Grizzlies: Be nice.

Tony Allen is going another way.

Peter Fleischer of Fox 13 Memphis:

Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace says Conley will re-sign with Memphis. Others disagree. For his part, Conley has been vague – though he left the door open for signing with the Knicks, need a point guard and could have max cap space .

Conley will have options, and he should explore them. This will be his first free agency after the Grizzlies drafted him and signed him to a contract extension. Staying with the only NBA team he has know should be appealing – but other options could be, too.

People in Memphis clearly care about him returning.

Each in their own way.