Hope for New York? Despair in Brooklyn? Around the NBA for a Pre-Trade Deadline Roundup

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Anyone else not surprised that the Brooklyn Nets are worse this year with Kyrie Irving in the fold?

Now, is it Kyrie’s fault that the Nets are five games under .500 nearly two-thirds of the way through the schedule? No, just like it wasn’t Kyle Shanahan’s fault the Niners blew a fourth quarter lead in the Super Bowl. But like Shanahan, when it’s your face associated with the success of a franchise, you will shoulder more than your fair share of the blame when things don’t go as planned. And yes, the background noise you hear right now is laughter emanating from all those Boston Celtics fans out there.

So this is now two franchises in a row that have taken a step back after adding Kyrie’s star power to its roster. Irving was a necessary evil if the Nets were ever going to convince Kevin Durant to come to Brooklyn, but let’s take a quick inventory of what we’ve seen so far, fifty games into Kyrie’s Brooklyn career:

*the Nets’ selfless play, help defense and ball movement that earned them an unexpected playoff spot a year ago, have all taken notable steps backwards since Irving arrived and disrupted last season’s successful rotation

*the injury bug continues to haunt Irving (along with accompanying whispers around how badly he really wants to be on the court when everything isn’t going his way), with him already missing 29 games this year (and counting)

*he’s gone public saying that the Nets need more stars to bolster his quest for a title in the borough, choosing not to comment on how much money Brooklyn spent on he and KD this offseason, not to mention their pal DeAndre Jordan

Despite all that, the Nets are still likely to find a way to make the playoffs this year, and the guess here is they will do it with roughly the same 42-40 record as they posted a year ago, which should be good enough for a seven seed. If you look at the standings today, that probably means a matchup with Toronto, Boston or Miami (or Philly should they ever figure out how to get their act together).

Brooklyn is the team nobody wants to face in a short series, in large part due to the explosive nature of Kyrie, but a repeat of a year ago (low playoff seed and first round elimination) can’t be what Sean Marks and the Nets brain trust had in mind when they broke the bank last July. Stay tuned.

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Moving across the river, the Knicks continue to surprise us in a stealth manner with the occasional good decision. Replacing the all-talk, no-results Coach Fiz with the understated, hoops-lifer Mike Miller was the team’s first good decision a couple months back.  Now they’ve built on that unexpected momentum by taking the gun out of team President Steve Mills’ hands before he could shoot the Knicks franchise in the foot yet again with poor trade-deadline decisions.

The shit-canning of Mills was way overdue, and leaves all of us in Knicks Nation with a cleansed feeling today. However, lest we forget, these are the Knicks, so who’s to say that we won’t wake up tomorrow to see the return of Isiah Thomas as President of basketball ops at The Garden. Yes, my skin is crawling as I type those words, but we all have learned to expect the worst buffoonery imaginable when it comes to Knickerbocker decision-making.

All we Knicks fans can do is hope the good decisions continue; the draft assets remain in house (as opposed to being traded for DeAngelo Russell or Andrew Wiggins, or some other disastrous, headline-grabbing type of bad deal); and ultimately a capable basketball man is put in charge to right this sinking (sunken?) ship. A tall order? Yes, but it beats reading about Mills digging our hole even deeper after getting taken to the cleaners at the trade deadline once again by the more competent execs around the NBA.

More NBA thoughts:

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A quick round of applause to Mike D’Antoni, James Harden and Russell Westbrook for making it work thus far down in Houston. Despite there only being one basketball in play at a time, the Rockets are still winning, and both The Beard and Russ are filling up box scores at alarming rates. But can this Houston team win a playoff series as currently constituted? Nope. If the playoffs started today, they’d be on the road heading to Utah. It would be a pleasure to watch the team-oriented Jazz broom Houston out of the first round without breaking a sweat, although a bit sad that D’Antoni’s distinguished coaching career would in all likelihood come to an end with such an outcome. And that is  exactly where this Rockets club is headed once the regular season concludes, so until then sit back and enjoy that prolific backcourt.

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Speaking of the Jazz… They’ve cooled off a bit of late after that scorching run that made the league take notice. Their 18-4 home record remains the best in the Western Conference, and is a compelling reason to expect them to, at a minimum, survive their first round playoff matchup and advance to what could be a date with LeBron and AD out west. Utah is really good. Period. A final four in the west that includes the L.A. favorites, plus Denver and Utah would provide us fans with incredible hoops entertainment this spring.

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And what of those Los Angeles favorites that share a home at Staples Center? I mean, who ya got? With 30 games or so remaining in the regular season, I believe it is fair to say that the L.A. club that enters the playoffs healthiest will be the prohibitive favorite to win it all come June. LeBron clearly has something to prove, and with AD shining alongside The King’s greatness, it is hard to take a strong position against the Lakers as our next NBA champion.

But then you remember how unstoppable Kawhi was last postseason. With Leonard leading the way, along with Paul George’s two-way game, strong supporting players and solid depth, not to mention Doc Rivers at the helm, it makes betting against the Clips a dicey proposition. It will all come down to health, folks, and right now the battle of L.A. is too close to call.

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If you were starting a team right now and could pick any point guard in the league, do you take Damian Lillard or Ja Morant? If you are a “win now” franchise, you have to go with Lillard, who’s once again tearing it up for a Blazers team with zero shot at winning a title (and as of now looks hard pressed to even make the playoffs).

If you are building a future dynasty, Morant sure looks like the real deal, and by far the best player to come out of last year’s draft. The fact that Morant has led the Grizzlies to the number eight seed in the loaded west is nothing short of miraculous, and even if that means a quick, round-one departure come playoff time, the experience garnered by this young Memphis squad will prove invaluable.

SportsAttic Aside — for what it’s worth, I’d take both Lillard and Morant over Kyrie Irving, and not even have to think about it. Just sayin’.

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Speaking of making picks, if you had to decide who’s fast start to the season was a bigger mirage, the Heat or the Mavericks, which team would you point at? And maybe throw OKC into the equation, too, since most of us had the Thunder in full on tank mode for the foreseeable future after the Westbrook trade.

As for Miami or Dallas, I have to go with Dallas as most likely to come back to the pack. Certainly the Luka Doncic injury factors into my selection, as well as the fact that it remains to be seen if the Mavs can ever can get it together to the point where both Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis can thrive on court at the same time. But the real difference maker here lies in strength of conference.

Miami’s start has defied common sense when you look at their roster. Yes, Jimmy Butler has been beyond what anyone could have reasonably expected, a stud on both ends and a leader as well, but Miami also gets to feast on all those Eastern Conference bottom feeders, making a full on collapse in South Beach less likely.

Meanwhile the Mavs (and the Thunder) must maintain their winning pace in the rugged west. When Doncic gets back will he be the same player we saw through the season’s first half? Can Porzingis stay healthy and in the lineup? A “no” to either of those questions sends Dallas spiraling toward a .500 record and a scrum for the 8th seed (they are in the six-hole currently).

In the east, the poor competition should allow Miami to hang in the high-40’s to low-50’s range for wins, even if they do suffer the reversion to the mean many predict after their off the charts start. OKC? Same challenge as Dallas, and add to that the question of whether anyone really expects Chris Paul to make it through this season without missing significant time to injury. CP3 has only missed one game thus far. Can it continue? Doubt it. Look for the Thunder to end up battling Portland for the final playoff slot in the west.

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And while we marvel at Miami’s rise to the top of the east, whether it is due to poor competition or not, can we also take a minute to ask what the heck is wrong in Philly? How can a roster this loaded be sitting as the current six seed, looking up at the likes of Indy and Miami? Well, one may begin to conclude that there is a coach-killer or two lurking in the Sixers locker room. Barring a strong finish to the season and a run to the conference finals at a minimum, look for either Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons to get moved in the offseason, with an entirely retooled roster awaiting the new head coach when 2020-21 rolls around.

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And now one final existential question — what is the value of a high-scoring star on a bad team? I found it interesting this week to hear such whining about not earning an All Star bid coming from Bradley Beal (and his girlfriend — never a good look BTW) and Devin Booker. The league has built its brand around the marketing of its stars, and in a stats-driven league, there will be many deserving, quality names propped up by their showy numbers for voters to consider every year. The reality is that  quite often the All Star tie-breaker will be how valuable is the player to their team, and are they a winner who makes those around them raise their level of play?

That last data point would explain Beale being left off the East this year, and Booker’s exclusion out west. Both are great players and regulars on SportsCenter night after night, while we watch their teams takes another bad loss on the chin.

And if the team does matter, then what about Trae Young’s starting nod? Based on the amount of airtime he gets on the highlight reels, he appears to be the next “next big thing,” yet the Hawks keep losing. And losing. And losing.

Currently Atlanta is playing to a .255 winning percentage despite Young’s 29/4/9 stat line. Yes, the Hawks roster is abysmal, and also yes, Young is well worth buying a ticket to see. But All Star starter? The Wizards are only slightly better than Atlanta, winning at a .347 clip, with Beal weighing in at 29/4/6 (nearly identical stats to Young). And the Suns are the best of these three terrible teams, currently ten games under .500 (their best start in years) with Booker at 27/4/6. All tremendous players and scorers, but none of whom can be called winners yet. Ever? Time will tell.

All Stars? Only Trae Young. Go figure.

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