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Three Things to Know: 2017-18 Western Conference ties record with 10 winning teams

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) This year’s Western Conference is special. The Clippers beat the Spurs last night, moving to 42-36 and clinching the 10th winning record in the West. The only other time a single conference produced so many winning teams – the 2001 Western Conference.

The standings that year:

1. San Antonio Spurs (58-24)

2. Los Angeles Lakers (56-26)

3. Sacramento Kings (55-27)

4. Utah Jazz (53-29)

5. Dallas Mavericks (53-29)

6. Phoenix Suns (51-31)

7. Portland Trail Blazers (50-32)

8. Minnesota Timberwolves (47-35)

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9. Houston Rockets (45-37)

10. Seattle SuperSonics (44-38)

The Bucks (106-102 over the Celtics) and Heat (101-98) winning last night also clinched all eight Eastern Conference playoff teams having winning records. So, there will be 18 teams this season above .500. The only other time that happened: 2005, when the 42-40 Cavaliers and 44-38 Timberwolves missed the playoffs.

All this points to a deep and fun postseason – except for the two Western Conference teams that don’t make it. Which leads to…

2) The Clippers and Nuggets aren’t going away. The Clippers trailed San Antonio by 19 and by seven with three minutes left. By snapping Indiana’s five-game winning streak, Denver has won three straight – last night’s narrow 107-104 victory and overtime wins over the Bucks and Thunder.

Just three Western Conference teams – Rockets, Warriors and Trail Blazers – have clinched playoff berths. The rest of the race:

4. Utah Jazz (45-33)

4. San Antonio Spurs (45-33)

6. Oklahoma City Thunder (45-34)

7. Minnesota Timberwolves (44-34)

8. New Orleans Pelicans (43-34)

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9. Denver Nuggets (43-35)

10. Los Angeles Clippers (42-36)

In their final four games, the Nuggets and Clippers each face three teams in the mix – including each other. Here’s the closing four for Denver and L.A.:

Nuggets:

  • vs. Timberwolves tomorrow
  • at Clippers on Saturday
  • vs. Trail Blazers on Monday
  • at Timberwolves next Wednesday

Clippers:

  • at Jazz tomorrow
  • vs. Nuggets on Saturday
  • vs. Pelicans on Monday
  • vs. Lakers next Thursday

Should be a fun finish.

3) The Cavaliers beat the Raptors, 112-106 – which means everything, nothing or something in between. Great analysis, I know.

Cleveland acting coach Larry Drew called a comeback win over Toronto a couple weeks ago a potential turning point. How big a message is another win over the first-place Raptors?

The Raptors have been the East’s best team this season, but they’ve also struggled in the playoffs the last few seasons and gotten eliminated by the Cavs the last two years. Even with Cleveland holding a worse record this year, a LeBron James team is always dangerous. Last night’s result could instill doubt in Toronto.

Or it could be an isolated event. After watching Villanova win the national championship the day before in San Antonio, Kyle Lowry scored five points on 2-of-11 shooting. He’ll be better-rested in the postseason.

On the other hand, the Cavaliers were missing starting point guard George Hill – though replacement Jose Calderon (19 points on 11 shots) played well. Of course, LeBron (27 points, 10 rebounds and six assists) and Kevin Love (18 points and 15 rebounds) did the heavy lifting.

Let’s just say not to read too much into a single regular-season game but not completely discount its importance, either.

Adam Silver hopes lottery changes, recent results will slow down tanking

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The NBA league office HATES tanking.

The league hates that teams see it as a strategy, and they hate the idea that there are fan bases actively rooting for their team to lose. The league sees that as a destructive force. What the fans see is a shot at Zion Williamson (or, the next great player). So the league changed around the lottery odds this season, and the Pelicans (with just a six percent chance at it) jumped up to the No. 1 spot, while the teams with the three worst records will pick third, fifth, and sixth.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told Rachel Nichols of ESPN he hopes the lottery changes, and the most recent results, end the worst of tanking (via Royce Young at ESPN).

“Where I think it’s the greatest success is, hopefully it’ll stop fans in those markets from rooting for their teams to perform poorly,” Silver said prior to Game 6 of the NBA Finals at Oracle Arena. “Because that race to the bottom is just destructive, I think, for everyone. Corrosive for players and franchises, and I think, in some cases, even some executives who knew better felt they couldn’t withstand the pressure from the communities, from the media in some cases, saying, ‘Why are you operating at this level when you should either get much better or much worse?’…

“I think in this case now with the change in the lottery, people are going to realize that there’s only one way to build a franchise,” Silver said. “Of course, you need to get great players, but at the same time you need to build culture, you need strong management, you need strong coaching. And players incrementally get better year after year. I mean, look at these two great franchises. It’s wonderful from a league standpoint to see the Warriors and the Raptors, two incredibly well-run franchises from top to bottom, here representing the league.”

The Warriors and Raptors are certainly well run, but lottery luck is still going to shape franchises as long as there is an NBA Draft. It’s the nature of a sport where you need at least one and probably two of the top 15-20 players in the world to win a title, for a lot of cities getting that player will only happen via the Draft.

What the change in lottery rules does is just move the inflection point. There may be reduced value in having the very worst record, but for a team that looks like it is on the playoff bubble at Christmas, the calculus changes: Tank the rest of the way, get maybe a six percent chance a the No. 1 pick and look what can happen. Some teams will still chase the playoff berth (and the gate revenue that comes with it), but not all. Teams will make different choices in the middle of the pack now because their lottery odds are better with this system.

It will be a few years before we fully see and understand the impact of the new lottery odds, but tanking on some level will be part of the NBA so long as there is a draft. And some fans will want their team to do it.

Report: If Brooklyn signs Kyrie Irving then D’Angelo Russell will leave

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Rumors have been flying around for weeks that Kyrie Irving is leaning towards signing in Brooklyn as a free agent. Things can still change, the Irving/Kevin Durant pairing with the Knicks is not off the table (or with the Nets), but there is, at the very least, strong mutual interest between Irving and the Nets.

Last season, Brooklyn extended Spencer Dinwiddie, giving them a quality reserve point guard at a reasonable price.

Where does that leave All-Star D'Angelo Russell? Out the door if Irving signs, reports Ian Bagley at SNY.com.

If Irving signs with the Nets, SNY sources familiar with the matter say it is highly unlikely that Russell remains with the Nets. Members of the Nets organization have communicated that idea in recent days, per sources.

Russell will have no shortage of suitors, including good teams looking for another shot creator in Indiana and Utah.

Russell is a restricted free agent and if Irving does not sign the Nets likely want Russell back. One interesting thing to watch, if the Nets rescind their rights to Russell, it would mean they are about to sign two max guys (they would need to get Russell’s cap hold off the books to get that done).

Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7 assists a game last season, shooting 36.9 percent from three. His shots started falling at a higher rate, he improved as a floor general, and his game took a leap forward to All-Star level last season.

How much did five Finals runs, fatigue factor into Durant, Thompson injuries?

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Klay Thompson ran more than 60 miles on the court during these NBA playoffs, that coming off a season where he ran nearly 198 miles during games.

Kevin Durant, even after missing a month with a calf injury, ran 29.5 playoff miles during these playoffs.

And that was just this season. In the past five seasons, the Golden State Warriors have played 105 playoff games. That means they essentially packed six seasons — including a playoff run — into five seasons of time.

The sports science on this is clear: Catastrophic injuries — such as a ruptured Achilles or ACL tear — are far more likely to happen when the player is fatigued.

With many trying to assign blame for the Warriors two devastating injuries in their final two games, part of that needs to fall on the Warriors’ own success. “Blame” may be the wrong word here because it’s not like the Warriors would give back a title, but becoming the first team since the Bill Russell Celtics to make it to five straight finals added to the fatigue for the team and likely played a role in what happened.

“I don’t know if it’s related to five straight seasons of playing a hundred plus games and just all the wear and tear, but it’s devastating,” an emotional Steve Kerr said after Game 6 discussing Durant’s ruptured Achilles and Thompson’s torn ACL.

Kerr is not alone. Twitter doctors and Charles Barkley aside, nobody knows how significant a role the extra games played in the injuries because there is seldom a straight line to draw between cause and effect on major injuries. Human nature is to want simple, clean answers, but life rarely presents those. It’s a complex stew of factors. LeBron James can go to eight straight Finals and not have this issue (although he is a physical outlier in the NBA in many ways).

Fatigue, however, appears to play a role.

In Durant’s case, his exertion may correlate with his injuries. His initial calf strain — and the Warriors insist that is all it ever was — happened against the Rockets, a series where Durant saw a jump in playing time of about five minutes a night because Kerr leaned heavily on his core in a series where the Warriors realized the threat. Studies have shown that injuries are more likely to occur when a player sees a sudden jump in minutes played and load carried, in part because that players’ body becomes more fatigued.

When Durant returned to the court for Game 5 of the NBA Finals, the plan was to play him in “short bursts,” meaning four- or five-minute stints. After the first five minute stint (there was a timeout at 7:11 in the first quarter), Durant said he felt good and asked to stay in, so he remained on the court until 5:50. He rested for about two and a half minutes, then was back on the court — and playing well. Durant had 11 points and the Warriors offense flowed far more smoothly again. Kerr left Durant in to start the second quarter, and at the 9:46 mark we all know what happened.

After missing 32 days of basketball, Durant played 12 of the first 14 minutes in Game 5. How much did that play a role in his torn Achilles?

Thompson missed Game 3 of the NBA Finals with a strained hamstring and was not 100 percent the remainder of the way. If that hamstring was healthier would he have landed differently or been able to withstand it better, not tearing his ACL after being fouled on a dunk attempt? We will never know, but it’s possible.

Meanwhile, across the way, the Toronto Raptors took heat in some quarters for the “load management” of Kawhi Leonard, having him miss 22 regular season games to rest his body and keep his quad tendon healthy. Leonard played through a sore right knee — suffered compensating for that left quad tendon — but was out there for every game and was Finals MVP.

Players, agents, and teams all took note of that. The next time a player is coming back from injury, Durant in particular (but also Thompson) will be seen as a cautionary tale. Expect guys to make sure they are 100 percent (or close to it) before getting back on the court, not wanting to risk a greater injury. Most guys are not still going to get the same contract offers after a catastrophic injury. Also, “load management” will become even more of a thing.

The NBA is a recovery league where fatigue is a constant issue. Maybe this is all another baby step toward shortening the NBA regular season schedule, but we all know the financial complexities of that make it a long way off. At best.

But for those that need to assign blame for the injuries to Durant and Thompson, starting with the Warriors own success is a good idea.

NBC Sports/Rotoworld NBA Draft preview show and mock draft

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With the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, the New Orleans Pelicans’ select…

Zion Williamson. That’s just obvious. Then the Grizzlies will take Ja Morant second, and the Knicks — or whoever has the pick by draft night — will take R.J. Barrett.

Then things get interesting.

I joined Rotoworld’s Tommy Beer and Steve Alexander to do a mock draft of the first round, from Zion through… you’ll just have to watch. The full video is above, and we also talk a little about potential trades and fantasy impact.

If you can’t get enough mock drafts, CollegeBasketballTalk’s Rob Dauster and I did a mock draft podcast of the first round a couple of weeks ago. You can check out the list and listen to picks 1-10 here, and then the rest of the first round at this link.