NBA playoff picture slowly starting to come into focus

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At this point, nothing would really surprise me when the NBA playoffs start in a month.

Well, Indiana winning the NBA title — heck, more than one game — would surprise me. So that is not totally true. But it’s hard to remember a more wide-open year. Every potential contender has enough strengths that you can champion them, enough flaws you can make an argument that dooms them.

Matchups will be key. And those matchups are slowly starting to come into focus. Let’s take a look one month out from the second season.

Eastern Conference

At the top: As of Wednesday morning, Chicago at 48-18 has a half game lead over Boston for the top spot, with Miami lurking 2.5 games back. Like the playoffs themselves, no finishing order here would be a real surprise, but there are some signs that look good in the windy city.

Getting that top seed matters because, as much as Orlando (who is basically locked in at the four seed) is not to be taken lightly, they scare anyone like the three right at the top do. The East’s two/three seed second round matchup will be a killer. Avoid that at all costs.

Chicago’s next 10 games feature only three teams over .500 and no team in the top four in either conference. They could push that slim lead out and hold on to the top spot. Miami is playing well again and after some tough games the rest of this week their schedule lightens up considerably. They are playing better defense and could make a real run at Boston in the two slot and even the top spot. Boston has a couple tough road trips ahead, they need to get their edge back or slipping to the three seed is not out of question.

Two games to watch: Boston at Chicago April 7, then Boston at the Heat April 10. Those could be big.

The East’s middle and bottom: The middle of the East looks pretty set. Look for another Orlando vs. Atlanta playoff series, although this time in the first round as the four and five seeds (the Magic swept that series last year). Philadelphia could catch New York for the six seed, either way the Sixers are a team the top teams are watching. Philly likely will not beat but will push whoever they face in the first round. They will not be an easy out.

The eight seed? Whichever team sucks the least amongst Indiana (currently in that slot), Charlotte (half a game back) and Milwaukee (2.5 back and fading). That team will have the honor of getting swept out in the first round. Indiana helped its cause with a couple wins over the Knicks and has the softest schedule from here on out. But it’s about sucking the least among these three.

Western Conference

At the top: Your San Antonio Spurs are the top seed and nobody is catching them. Whether their defense finds its way back is a question for another day, but San Antonio will have home court advantage for every round it plays in the playoffs.

The Lakers/Mavericks two/three seed battle in the West is more interesting. Currently the Lakers are the two seed by half a game over Dallas and Los Angeles may be playing the best ball in the West over the past couple weeks. That includes a thumping of the Mavs. That win raises this question: Does Dallas need home court to beat the Lakers in the second round? If so, they need to make a push now.

Oklahoma City is likely your four seed (unless they falter and Denver stays red hot). With Kendrick Perkins in the paint and a year of playoff experience, can they knock off the Spurs in the second round? That may be the most interesting question in the playoffs.

The West’s middle and bottom: All that talk above about second round matchups — that could be moot. The teams on the bottom half of the West are playing well right now, they are dangerous. The way Denver is defending and moving the ball makes them a real threat to Oklahoma City or anyone else in the first round. I’ve been told by people from a couple teams they want to avoid current eight-seed Memphis Grizzlies in the first round — that’s a long and dangerous front line with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, plus they have good wing players (with Rudy Gay due back in a week or two). Memphis is dangerous. Even to beat them could take a lot out of a team, who would then face a stiff second round challenge.

As for the other two teams, Portland is playing well and New Orleans brings a good defense and the always-dangerous Chris Paul to the table.

Only 2.5 games separate the five and eight seeds in the West, so predicting an order of finish is like predicting the NCAA tournament. Basically luck matters more than skill. Utah (2 games) and Phoenix (2.5 games) are looking up at the eight seed and want into to the party, but nobody in that top 8 is fading. That’s likely leaves Phoenix, Utah and Houston at the bottom of the lottery.

My prediction: One of the top four seeds in the West will get upset in the first round. It’s too early to say who — matchups and who is hot heading in will be factors — but the West remains deep. There will be no easy outs. Somebody is going to slip up.

Three Things to Know: Trae Young has seen the future and it’s dropping 50 on Heat

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday during the NBA regular season we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) Trae Young has seen the future and it’s dropping 50 on Heat. Way back on Dec. 10, when Trae Young and the Hawks were in Miami, Young slid a pass to Alex Led for a bucket that put the Hawks up six inside a minute. That should have been the dagger and Young reacted that way, waving his arms to say the game was over.

It wasn’t. Miami came back to win in OT.

Jimmy Butler took to Instagram to taunt Young about it postgame.

Fast forward to Thursday night, the return of basketball after the All-Star break, when the Hawks and Heat met up again. Young looked rested after a few days off, he looked motivated, and he dropped a 50 spot on the Heat on 12-of-25 shooting, 8-of-15 from three, to spark an Atlanta win.

This time it was Young who took to social media.

You can talk all the smack you want Trae, you earned it.

Miami is 4-6 in its last 10, going back to before the break, which is an issue for a team now up just one game in the loss column over Philadelphia, and with that the right to be home for the first round of the playoff. Indiana is only three back. Jae Crowder moved into the starting lineup, Bam Adebayo had 28 points and 19 boards in a monster night for him, but it wasn’t enough. There was too much Trae on Thursday night.

The Heat have the league’s sixth toughest schedule the rest of the way, they need to find some wins down the stretch or risk fading in the East playoff picture.

2) Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson officially out for the season. Neither of these players being out the rest of the way is a surprise. Nor is it much of a blow to their team in either case, both teams were looking past this season. Still, on Thursday we learned two NBA stars had been sidelined for good.

Kyrie Irving had tried to play through shoulder bursitis — that’s what he called it, while other reports called it “a deterioration” — earlier this season, opting for a cortisone shot over surgery. That worked for nine games, but he sprained his knee and needed time off, then when the shot started to wear off the realization hit.

Thursday, Nets GM Sean Marks made it official, Irving would have a “shoulder procedure” and is done for the season. As our own Keith Smith pointed out, with Kevin Durant sidelined the entire season coming off a torn Achilles, it was never about this season in Brooklyn. More time on the court for Irving gaining chemistry with his new teammates would have been nice, but it was not a requirement.

How good the Nets are going to be next season will be debated. They have good role players — Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Joe Harris (if they re-sign him) — to go around Irving and Durant, but how much will they get out of their stars? They will need vintage KD to have a shot against teams such as the Bucks, and that’s a lot to ask a 32-year-old coming off a torn Achilles. Durant looks good shooting the rock in an empty gym, but that is a long way from doing it in a game.

Klay Thompson never set foot on the court for the Warriors this season, nor was he expected to as he worked to recover from a torn ACL suffered in last year’s Finals. Still, the Warriors shut the door on his return on Thursday, ending any speculation.

The Warriors come back next season with Thompson, Stephen Curry (who will return to the court next month), Draymond Green, a healthy Kevon Looney, whatever they can get out of Andrew Wiggins, and a high draft pick (or, whoever they trade that pick for). The Warriors will be rested and be threats in the West again.

3) Joel Embiid: “I’m here, I belong, and being the best player in the world.” Joel Embiid saved Philadelphia on Thursday night. The Sixers came out of the All-Star break flat, going down by 15 to the shorthanded Nets in the first half.

Embiid, who finished the game with 39 points and 16 rebounds, changed the dynamic in the second half and brought the Sixers back for a 112-104 win. He shot 4-of-4 from the line in the final 35 seconds of regulation, then blocked Wilson Chandler‘s shot to force OT.

It’s the kind of win the Sixers need down the stretch, they remain just half a game back of Miami for the four seed and home court in the first round.

Embiid played like a guy inspired by his All-Star experience. What did Embiid get out of his time in Chicago? Via NBC Sports Philadelphia:

“The All-Star Game is just proving that I’m here, I belong, and being the best player in the world,” Embiid said. “I just intend to keep coming out every single night, just play hard and try to get wins. Go hard and try to win a championship.”

Embiid is playing like his dominant self again, and Sixers fans want him thinking like he’s the best player in the world. Even though he is not. However, he might be the best center in the world right now, and that might be enough to make the Sixers a serious threat in the playoffs (if the rest of the team can step up).

It was never about this year for the Brooklyn Nets

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With news that Kyrie Irving is out for the season due to impending shoulder surgery, it’s worth taking a look at exactly where the Brooklyn Nets stand now.

Irving and Kevin Durant were the big-ticket items for Brooklyn this summer, as they both signed four-year, max deals. Those contracts came with starting salaries of $31.7 million for Irving and $38.2 million for Durant. That’s a combined $69.9 million for a grand total of 20 games (all from Irving).

But it was never about this season for the Nets.

Not when they signed Irving and Durant, and certainly not now.

After Durant tore his Achilles’ during the 2019 NBA Finals, it was assumed he would be out for most if not all of the 2019-20 season. Brooklyn reiterated this when they signed Durant and made it clear they would not rush him back. Durant recently said himself that he would not return this season, even with the Nets pushing for a second straight playoff appearance.

Instead of an immediate impact, Brooklyn banked on a long-term one. Now, they’ll open next season with both Durant and Irving coming off mostly lost years. And they’ll have a lot more questions than answers about the viability of building a title contender around the two stars, given the health concerns.

After this season runs its course, and he misses 62 games, Irving will have missed a whopping 27% of his teams’ regular season contests of the course of his career. Durant will be 32 years old the next time we see him play, and coming off a year without playing in an NBA game. And that’s before factoring in that very few players have returned from the torn Achilles’ at the same level they were at pre-injury.

The Durant portion was part of the plan for Brooklyn. Sean Marks knew what he was signing up for there. The Irving part was unexpected, but given his history, not exactly shocking. Now it’s about what Marks does next to try and set things on a solid path moving forward.

Before this season, Caris LeVert and Taurean Prince both inked contract extensions. This came on the heels of Spender Dinwiddie signing an extension before last season ended. With these three moves, Marks kept three valuable rotation players off the open market.

Brooklyn also has Jarret Allen and Dzanan Musa on rookie-scale deals and a few other young players under team control for next season as well. All total, the Nets have 13 total players under team control approaching this offseason.

Brooklyn is already right up against the luxury tax to start next season, and that’s before re-signing key free agent Joe Harris. Harris is in his fourth year with the Nets, and has found a home in Brooklyn. He’s improved each year since Marks plucked him off the scrap heap, but he’s probably not giving the Nets any sort of hometown discounts this time around.

In a year where the free agent class is fairly barren, Harris will have suitors. He’s the top shooter on the market and the handful of teams with meaningful cap space are in the market to add shooting. Brooklyn has full Bird rights for Harris, but signing him to a market value contract will push them deep into the luxury tax.

Even the ownership groups with the deepest of pockets have limits on how much tax they’re willing to pay. This is one spot where having DeAndre Jordan on the books for over $10 million is a complicating factor. Jordan is close with both Durant and Irving, but he’s clearly behind Allen in the center rotation, and rookie big Nicolas Claxton has shown a lot of promise as well.

The Nets also have to consider whether or not they want to bring back Wilson Chandler, who has been a rotation player since returning from a 25-game suspension. And Brooklyn has team options for Garrett Temple and Theo Pinson to deal with as well.

Given the makeup of the roster, it’s unlikely the Nets will be in the market to add impact newcomers this summer. Their best bet is probably re-signing Harris and maybe adding a veteran or two on minimum deals. That probably puts Brooklyn somewhere between $10 and $15 million in the tax.

Even with concerns over a mounting tax bill, you have to factor in that the Nets are essentially adding Durant and Irving all over again this summer. The 20 games, complete with 8-12 record, are largely forgettable for Irving. And, of course, Durant won’t have even suited up in a Nets jersey by the time 2020-21 tips off.

If the two stars are able to be stars again, Brooklyn is deep and versatile. Kenny Atkinson will have his work cut out for him finding enough minutes for everyone, especially on the wing. But that’s something Marks can alleviate in the offseason. If he believes the Nets have a hole at the four (it looks like a weak spot), Marks can trade a wing to bring in a power forward.

But Marks will need to be careful. Trade away too much of that depth, and Brooklyn won’t be protected if Durant and/or Irving goes down again. That was fine this year. Adding the two stars was never about this year for the Nets. But it is very much about next year and beyond.

Trae Young drops career-high 50 points in Hawks win

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Trae Young suffered from no All-Star break hangover.

The second-year guard went for a career-high 50 points, as the Atlanta Hawks defeated the Miami Heat 129-124. Young shot 12-of-25 from the floor, including 8-of-15 from behind the arc. One of those shots was this bomb from the logo:

Fittingly, Young got his 50th point at the free throw line since he was 18-of-19 at the charity stripe on the night. This was Atlanta’s first 50-point game since Shareef Abdur-Rahim in 2001.

Young got some help from his baby Hawks teammates in the win too. De’Andre Hunter scored 17 points and knocked down a big three-pointer late in the fourth quarter. Fellow rookie Cam Reddish went for 16 off the bench, including picking Goran Dragic’s pocket for a breakaway dunk that put Atlanta up for good with 31 seconds to play.

Report: Klay Thompson ruled out for entire 2019-20 season

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Marc Stein reports that the Golden State Warriors have ruled Klay Thompson out for the remainder of the 2019-20 season:

Thompson tore his left ACL during the 2019 NBA Finals. It was always unlikely that he would return during the 2019-20 season, and it’s all but official now.

Thompson’s absence, combined with Stephen Curry breaking his left hand in the Warriors’ fourth game, has led to Golden State’s tumble in the standings. The Warriors come out of the All-Star break with the NBA’s worst record at 12-43. Stephen Curry’s return to play seems to be nearing, but that won’t be enough to lift Golden State into playoff contention. Currently, the defending Western Conference champions are 16.5 games out of a postseason spot.

After sending D’Angelo Russell to the Minnesota Timberwolves at the trade deadline, the rest of this season is about Steve Kerr seeing what he has in Andrew Wiggins alongside Curry and Draymond Green. Golden State will also continue to develop the younger players on their roster with plenty of minutes.

Next year, the Warriors will open with a retooled roster around Curry, Thompson, Green, Wiggins and whatever talent general manager Bob Myers is able to add over the summer. Myers has a $17 million trade exception and a high lottery pick to work with. Considering that the core of Curry, Thompson and Green had played an additional 105 games over five consecutive Finals runs, a season of rest is probably welcomed, even if unplanned. They should come back rested, re-loaded and ready to go for 2020-21.