Who’s Feelin’ Kevin Porter?

Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News, Kevin Porter Jr., NBA

Perhaps the thing missing from this Cleveland Cavaliers team is something unseen or undefined. Collin Sexton is a bucket getter, while Andre Drummond snarls rebounds and junks his way into 16-20 points per night. Darius Garland has moments, but his inexperience shows more often than not. Cedi Osman, Dante Exum, and even Tristan Thompson lack it, and it holds them back. Most of the parts on Cleveland’s roster have no feel.

To reach another level in the NBA, players and coaches need to understand the game and what to give at any moment. LeBron James is one of the greatest players in history because of his size, speed, passing acumen, and work ethic. James’ most important quality, however, is his intelligence. Distinguishing when to get his teammates involved versus when to take over a game on his own. Is he needed on defense, or is his energy best saved on offense? His team is getting destroyed on the boards; LeBron rebounds. Kyle Kuzma heats up; James feeds him the ball. Danny Green is struggling defensively; James takes his man for a four-minute stretch. LeBron is the obvious example, but other players in the league feel the game, knowing what it needs from them.

It’s the reason Kevin Porter Jr. is the future of the Cavs’ franchise. Though only 19, Porter has the feel his teammates lack and the abilities to give what they need from him. He isn’t the best scorer or rebounder, passer or defender. He does a little of everything.

Porter’s athletic ability, versatility, and smarts in one play

Feel on the court is the innate ability to make the right play. Cross-court passes to the open man for a corner three. When to attack the basket off the pick and roll, and when to take the shot or dish to the roll man. Pushing the ball in transition, or pulling back to half-court to run offense. Though young and still mistake prone, these are the things Porter executes better than his teammates. He sees the floor well, knowing where his teammates are at all times. His talent level, size, and athletic ability contribute, but Porter understands the game.

Helping his big in the PnR, then knowing to push up court

Per 36 numbers aren’t gospel, but they give a peek into Porter’s future. 15.5 points, 3.3 assists, 1.5 steals, 5 rebounds, and a half a block. Nothing noteworthy, except that he gives the Cavs a little of everything. And he’s just a rookie. Porter spent the first month of the season lost, struggling to fit on an NBA roster. A 30 point game last week. Six assists in 26 minutes against Philadelphia. Four 2 or 3 steal games over the last month. He’s gaining confidence in his place in Cleveland and the NBA.

If the current rebuild transitions into a franchise competing for the playoffs within a few years, it will be because of Kevin Porter. Darius Garland, Collin Sexton, Larry Nance Jr., and maybe Dylan Windler can be nice pieces on a good team, but Porter has star potential. Playoff teams need an All-Star, someone capable of getting crunch time buckets in isolation and creating open looks for teammates. Porter possesses those talents. Will he mature into that player?

What’s What Around the League

1.If the Clippers’ roster has a problem, it is a lack of size. Yet on the buyout market, L.A. signed another score first guard from Detroit’s scrap heap, Reggie Jackson. Since a useful stretch in Oklahoma City off the bench in the Durant/Westbrook years, Jackson has gotten paid and seen his worth plummet. Can he be of use to the championship hopeful Clippers? A 10 point 7 assist outing Friday in a huge win against the Nuggets notwithstanding, anything Jackson brings to the Clips is redundant. What does he do differently, or better, than Lou Williams? Is he going to out shoot Landry Shamet? Will the 6’3” guard lock up the opposition on defense in crunch time? It’s difficult to envision Jackson playing any meaningful minutes in May and June for the Clippers; this signing was done to keep him from the cross hallway competition rather than help the Clips.

2. Bradley Beal has erupted over the last week, averaging 41.5 per to climb into 2nd in the league in scoring. Bereft of anyone to help carry the scoring load or exert any effort defensively, Wizards’ games are only a stage for Beal to cook. Will he hit 12 threes? Can he score 60 while being tripled teamed? Beal is one of the top 15-20 players in the league, giving the Wiz an interesting decision to make. Trade rumors swirled in the off-season before he signed a two year, 72 million extension to the 5 year, 127 million dollar deal signed in 2016. Does Washington see any long-term success between Beal and John Wall, if and when Wall returns from an injured Achilles, or would the franchise rather have the massive haul it would receive by trading Beal? Two young players and multiple 1st rounders for the dynamic guard would make the front office think. New Orleans has a stash of picks from the Anthony Davis trade, as does OKC from their myriad of transactions. Both teams are on the rise and would benefit from a star instead of an abundance of future rookies. Beal, Ingram, Lonzo, and Zion? Sign me up.

3. The Nuggets have stayed in the 2-4 position all season out West, and Nikola Jokic, after a slow start, deserves to be in the MVP discussion once again. Denver has title aspirations, however, and will need more than Jokic’s passing and shot making to advance in the Western Conference playoffs. The leap Jamal Murray made in last year’s playoffs turned into a back slide for most of the season, yet Murray has shown signs of stepping back into the leadership role he must garner in order for the Nuggets to compete with the Lakers and Clippers. Averages of 24 points and 5.6 assists over his last 8 portend an awakening for Murray, an always intriguing but never-quite-consistent conundrum for Mike Malone. Gary Harris, Murray’s young backcourt mate, has struggled all season, leading many to call for his benching. Denver can’t afford growing pains from both. In the year of the duo, Denver’s is the weakest. Murray needs to be a reliable force, a strong two behind Jokic, for the rest of the season and playoffs if the Nuggets are to contend.

4. Nutmegging is cute at all, but watch yourself around vets.

5. Doug McDermott is an analytics department’s wet dream. 54% of his shots are 3’s, and he makes 43% of them. 26% of the rest of his shots are within 3 feet; he feasts off of defenses overplaying him, back-dooring opponents to death. His size (6’7”) makes him an adequate defender, and his 7 million salary is a steal. While Victor Oladipo eases his way back into playing shape, it’s fair to wonder how much damage the Pacers could do in the playoffs. With the Bucks blow torching the league and Toronto and Boston beginning to separate themselves from the rest of the Eastern Conference pack, Indiana is once again the forgotten squad. Perhaps the star power isn’t there and Oladipo will need until next season to return to 100% from his injury. The Pacers are deep, however, and T.J. Warren (22 ppg last 7) seems more comfortable in Indy. Watch out for them in May.

6. Injuries are killing Portland’s chances of making the playoffs. They’re missing four starters and the one that matters most, Damian Lillard, hasn’t dressed for any of the Blazers’ last six games. The 8th seed race in the West will provide needed intrigue over the last third of the NBA season, and while the masses are rooting for a Zion-LeBron 1st round matchup, Memphis, Portland, San Antonio, Sacramento, and even Phoenix are on the periphery of the race. While N.O.-L.A. is glitzy, Portland would provide the biggest chance of an upset. Lillard and C. J. McCollum are battle tested; they know how to score against defenses designed to stop them. For all the Lakers’ size, their guard play lacks punch. Portland has slogged through this season; only Lillard’s 6 game, 48 point average onslaught produced any consistency. LeBron and Anthony Davis are the best duo in the league, but they don’t want any part of a hot Portland backcourt in the 1st round.

7. This is obscene.

8. Caris LeVert is a young but dynamic player; his 51 point outburst last night in Boston is evidence of that. Injuries have disrupted his entire career, however. He’s only played over 60 games once in his 4 years in the league. Brooklyn will sneak into the East playoffs because of the garbage at the bottom of the conference, but the real question for the Nets is how he’ll look beside Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant next year. LeVert is shooting 41% overall, 38% from 3, and 30% on jump shots. How will that play alongside two All-Stars? Is he someone who needs the ball in his hands? If so, he may benefit Brooklyn as a sixth man. He has good size and shows promise on the defensive end (3 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor). After a red-shirt year, the pressure in Brooklyn will ratchet higher in 2021. Finding the correct role for LeVert will be paramount.

9. Ben Simmons has a back injury that will sideline him at least two weeks. Joel Embiid’s shoulder gets re-tested next week. Al Horford doesn’t fit, and rumors swirl that Philadelphia will try to move him over the summer. The 76ers’ season can be saved with a run to the Finals, but is that realistic? The injuries never stop, and the pieces don’t fit. If the likely implosion occurs in May, Brett Brown will get canned and Simmons or Embiid (likely Simmons) will be on the trading block. Have fun with that Elton Brand.

10. Per usual, dysfunction, injury, and in-fighting plagued Sacramento this season. Though a strong second half has them on the edge of the Western Conference playoff race, the Kings organization still cannot get out of its own way. Buddy Hield and Dewayne Dedmon (before being traded to Atlanta) fought with teammates and the organization early, and De’Aaron Fox’s injuries almost killed any shot the franchise had of carrying over success from last season’s 39 win team. Perhaps the quickest player in the league, Fox speeds up Sacto’s pace, allowing Marvin Bagley (only 13 games played this season), Hield, Richaun Holmes, and Bogdan Bogdanovic to excel in the open court. The Kings are surging behind a healthy Fox, winners of three straight and up to 9th in the West. A future exists where the Kings are a perennial Western Conference playoff team and Fox an annual All-Star. Can this young core overcome their inept organization?

 

Is Kevin Porter the Cavs’ Future?

Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News, Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Kevin Porter Jr., LeBron James

As the Cleveland Cavaliers’ season trudges along, Kevin Porter Jr. is beginning to look like the future of the organization. A top pick in the 2020 draft could change that, but of the guys on the roster, Porter has the highest ceiling and best chance at stardom. He can shoot. He’s become more decisive on his drives to the bucket. His jerky style confuses defenses and spectators. It’s hard to discern if he’s unsure of himself or probing the defense, looking for a crack to exploit (a little of both). His defense has improved. With his length and quickness he can be a good defender. His instincts are good, averaging a steal per game. Only 20, will Porter mature into a player the franchise can build around?

Darius Garland is improving in fits and starts. His trigger finger is getting quicker; he’s shooting 2 more threes a game over the last 10 contests. The questions entering the year centered on Collin Sexton and Garland and how they would play off each other. Now it seems more important to play Garland and Porter together. While it’s still early, Sexton’s future role is scorer off the bench, a la Jordan Clarkson or Lou Williams. Sexton is adept at what he does, getting downhill with the ball in his hands, attacking the basket. His defense and 3 point shooting need to improve. He doesn’t see the floor or his teammates well. Sexton can still get better, but to expect more from him is a stretch.

John Beilein began playing Garland and Porter minutes together this week. While Garland starts, he’s being replaced five minutes in with Matthew Dellavedova. He’s re-entering with the second unit, and that lineup has flourished. Garland, Clarkson, Porter, Larry Nance, and John Henson closed a 9 point deficit in Milwaukee Saturday night to one in 6 minutes together before the starters returned and the lead ballooned. It’s a small sample size, just 42 minutes together, but the group is plus 8.8 per 100 possessions. Henson is far and away the team’s best defender; his length adds a dimension the team lacks. Nance is a Swiss army knife, Clarkson is a scorer. Watch this lineup over the next few weeks.

Porter’s overall numbers are poor. His shooting percentages and defensive on/offs show a horrid NBA player. The eyes are the key metric with him, however. He looked lost the first month and a half of the season, but is improving. The constant pump fakes behind the 3 point line are becoming catch and shoots. He’s attacking the rim off the dribble instead of bouncing the ball with no purpose. He recorded 3 steals in his first nine games, total. He’s averaging 1.3 per game since. Porter is immature and played little college ball. His game fits in the NBA, however. If John Beilein can mold Porter Jr. into an All-Star level player, the franchise will consider his work a success.

Porter was indecisive here early in the year. Now it’s a catch and shoot

Cavs Quick Hits

Cedi Osman and Tristan Thompson dribble too much. Their handles are subpar; in the NBA that leads to turnovers. Both are fine when shooting off cuts or post ups. Osman is a better 3 ball shooter off catch and shoots. When they put the ball on the floor, they become turnover machines. Neither’s handles are even average, and on a better team they wouldn’t have the opportunity to dribble. Beilein needs to get the ball out of their hands.

Collin Sexton shot 40% from 3 last year, a shock to most who thought he lacked a jumper. He’s regressed this year, however, shooting only 29% from behind the line. Which shooter is the real Sexton? If he is to be a useful NBA player, it can’t be this year’s version. His quickness level is elite; he’s one of, if not the fastest, players in the league. His transition game devastates opponents, but he can struggle in the half court. Defenses are keeping him out of the lane by giving him the 3, hurting the team’s spacing. If he can’t keep defenses honest by canning triples, he’ll continue to struggle and hurt the offense.

What’s What Around the League

1.I hate 2 for 1s. There, I said it. While the math is the math, and 2 possessions at the end of a quarter should be advantageous, the execution is lacking. The result is two bad shots; a rushed heave or out-of-control drive to the rim followed by the same after getting the ball back from your opponent, who ran their normal offense and got a quality shot. Coaches seem to feel the same way. While I have no numbers to back it up, the 2 for 1s seem down this year. Again, no numbers, but running offense and getting one quality shot instead of forcing two for the sake of getting the ball on the rim leads to more points. Quantity isn’t better than quality.

2. Ja is special.

3. Devonte’ Graham is a revelation. A breakout star for a feisty Charlotte team, one many expected to be the worst in the league, Graham is the Hornet offense. Shifty and quick, with a split second release, Graham’s game is Iversony, a smallish bulldog who can score at will. His 40 in Brooklyn, capped off by a dagger 3, highlighted his importance in Charlotte. With his team struggling to find offense, Graham rained 3’s, creating space with speed and cagey dribbling. After bouncing between the G-League and the big team last year, Graham no longer spends time in Greensboro, and, while he isn’t there yet, deserves to be in the All-Star conversation. 19.9 points and 7.6 assists on 42% from 3 are take notice numbers, but can he sustain them? On a team with few offensive weapons, Graham’s next challenge will be to prove he isn’t a flash in the pan.

4. Though Ja Morant receives high praise in Memphis, the Grizzlies other rookie can turn heads too. Brandon Clarke is a springy big. His athleticism draws the eye, though the rest of his game demands attention. His post game is strong; good footwork and a quick first step are allowing him to shoot a tick below 70% three feet from the rim and 66% within 10 feet. Though he only takes 1 per game, he’s canning 50% of his threes, showing potential behind the arc. Grizzly fans must hardly be able to contain their excitement. Morant is a superstar in the making. Jaren Jackson Jr. dropped 43 against Milwaukee last week, and Clarke seems a perfect fit next to them. Memphis is a juggernaut in waiting.

5. How good can this Laker team be? The ancillary parts are what they are, but a locked in LeBron James and Anthony Davis are unlike any duo the league has seen. James has coasted since the title in ‘16, turning up only in the playoffs, a right he’s earned. Whether because of Davis’ arrival or the off-season passing of the best player torch in the media to Kawhi Leonard, scorched earth LeBron has returned. His defense, gone since his Miami days, is back, and he’s leading the league in assists for the first time in his career. Davis provides him with the most devastating weapon he’s ever possessed. His athleticism and defense provide cover for LeBron to do what he does best. He’s free to roam on defense, hunting steals and blocks. No longer the singular focus of defenses, LeBron has room to probe and survey on offense, a death sentence for the opposition.

6. James’ vision and passing acumen improve his teammates; they furnish Davis with a path to the MVP. LeBron moves defenses at will, giving AD space he never knew existed for lobs, one-on-one post ups, and open 3’s, which he’s canning at a career best 34%. The Lakers are unguardable, regardless of the 3 other players sharing the floor with these two. We know Kawhi will turn it up for the playoffs. James Harden has ghosts he needs to abolish, and Luka Doncic wants a seat at the table. LeBron and AD are just different, however. The title runs through them.

7. The Luka Doncic injury, he sprained his right ankle Saturday night, will give us more info on the Mavericks’ roster. Full of guys playing above their heads, can they continue winning, or is this a Doncic driven improvement? Kristaps Porzingis needs to become more involved, and Tim Hardaway Jr will have to carry more of the offense. A road win in Milwaukee Monday night suggests Dallas’ bench mob is for real. Check in on the Mavs in a few weeks.

8. The 76ers desperately need a point guard who can handle the rock and shoot the three at the end of games. Would the Bulls be interested in trading them Tomas Satoransky? He’s an excellent point guard on a good contract. The Bulls signed him to as a free agent this off-season, but have a promising young point guard in Coby White and adequate backups in Kris Dunn and Ryan Arcidiacono. There are protections involved, but the Sixers have their 2021 and 2022 first round picks available. With a chance to win the title, would Elton Brand consider a 37% 3 point shooter who’s averaging over 5 assists per game worth one of those 1sts? He’d take pressure off Ben Simmons.

9. Markelle Fultz is slick. There’s a good player here. Can the Magic unlock him?

10. We know as good as Kawhi Leonard is now, he’ll jump another level in the playoffs. The Clippers’ title chances, therefore, rest on Paul George. The Lakers’ duo looks unstoppable. For the Clips to beat their cross-hallway rival, George will be key. He went toe-to-toe with LeBron years ago during those Heat-Pacers series, but slumped in May with the Thunder. Injuries were a cause, as was Russell Westbrook. The Clippers will need either George or Leonard guarding LeBron at all times, a luxury for sure, but also a necessity, to beat the Lakers. If James controls playoff games in his normal fashion, the purple and gold LA squad are the champs. The Clippers All-Pro defenders must make him work for positioning on the floor. They will have to make it difficult for him to get the ball. With no answer on the roster for Anthony Davis, slowing 23 is their only hope.

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

 

Ahead of Schedule?

Cleveland Cavaliers, Darius Garland, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Love, Kevin Porter Jr., NBA, Trae Young, Tristan Thompson, Uncategorized

When a young NBA team expected to lose begins stacking wins together, their confidence level rises. It’s happening right now with the Cavaliers. Regardless of the competition (the Wizards and Knicks are bad) back-to-back road wins by a team supposed to be one of the worst in the league breeds assurance that the system is working, and the effort is worth it.


John Beilein is an excellent coach. This was never in doubt. The questions related to his hiring focused on his age and his ability to sell established NBA players on his “old school” principles. Koby Altman nailed his first coaching hire. Beilein is a master at player development and getting the max out of his roster.


His most important sell, and the reason for the Cavs’ early success, was getting Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love on board. The two title holdovers have grabbed leadership rolls and are taking pride in guiding the young players through the trials of an NBA season. On the court, throughout games, both are teaching, pointing out defensive mistakes to guards Darius Garland and Collin Sexton, while also praising them when they succeed. Coming into the season, each was a prime target for a trade. Trades may still happen, and both are becoming more valuable as they continue to play well, but the organization is in a great position. Their worth to the young players is clear. The opportunity to bounce ideas off ring owners, players who battled with LeBron and Kyrie against one of the greatest teams of all time, is priceless. The rebuild will be less painful with Thompson and Love embracing the situation.


If the front office wants to trade them, however, the price is increasing. Since the Cavs need not trade either, they can afford to hold teams’ feet to the fire. If, say, Portland or Boston get desperate, Cleveland can extract a high price from someone for their playoff tested vets.


Beilein’s best work has been the rookies’ development. Garland and Kevin Porter Jr. are improving. Small changes are paying big dividends. The most obvious is the aggression of the rookies. Both tentative early, they’re finding their footing while gaining confidence. Garland’s playmaking skills are showing; he tallied 12 assists in two games over the weekend, while also scoring 27. He’s started making shots, which has given him the confidence to attack. On those drives, he’s having success throwing lobs to Thompson or shooting floaters over the defense. Though the 3 ball isn’t falling, with his mechanics and quick release, it’s a matter of time.


Porter Jr. is a herky jerky, “No! No! Yes!” type of shooter, who, if he figures out the league, will be a dynamic scorer. He has size, quickness, ball handling skills, and the shooting touch to average 20 a game. Can he harness his bad habits? This will be Beilein’s greatest test. If he turns Porter into the player he has the talent to be, the Cavs’ rebuild will shorten.

Porter Jr. can score at the rim when the mood strikes


Want a stat that illustrates why the Cavaliers have surprised? Cleveland’s starting five man lineup is outscoring opponents by 16 points per 100 possessions. Only Denver’s is better.


Now the bad.


Kevin Love is the Cavs best player, and the offense must run through him to function well. Love needs to cut out the dribbling, however. When he catches in the post, takes 1-2 dribbles and either shoots or passes, he’s fine. When he pounds and pounds the basketball he gets in trouble. The Celtics guarded him with Marcus Smart and, trying to take advantage of the height mismatch, Love took bad shots while allowing Smart to take the ball from him on multiple occasions. Same on Sunday against the Knicks. Taj Gibson and Marcus Morris pestered him into turnovers when he over dribbled. Love’s a better passer than he’s given credit for. He needs to keep the ball moving after he’s drawn the defense’s attention.


If Matthew Dellavedova plays another minute, it’s too many. He isn’t bringing anything of value to the court. He can’t shoot, is turning the ball over, and gets smoked on defense. At least Brandon Knight can knock a 3 down.


An improved defense has resulted from the team trying harder on that end than last year. While Sexton is better and Thompson has been stronger defending the rim, there aren’t enough natural defenders on the roster for them to be an above average unit. Altman’s next challenge will be to draft long, athletic wings capable of guarding multiple positions to mask the deficiencies of the smaller guards. John Henson’s return will help the bench unit tremendously.


Although he’s a dynamic scorer, Jordan Clarkson’s game is a nuisance. Too often he doesn’t have it, yet is firing away. He’s bringing nothing else to the table, so when his shot isn’t falling Clarkson becomes a burden. Maybe Beilein can get him to look for his teammates more often, but there’s been no sign he’s willing to share the rock. On nights when he’s cold early, the Cavs would be better off with him sitting next to Dean Wade during second halves.

 

What’s What Around the League

1. In Utah, Giannis showed the grit and determination that made him an MVP. Two time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert locked him down in the first half, holding Antetokounmpo to 2 points on 0-7 shooting, with a disrespectful rejection at the rim thrown in for good measure. Giannis awoke in the second half, however, dragging the Bucks back from a 20 point deficit by draining 3’s and re-establishing his dominant paint presence. His 28 in the second half was only overcome by a Bojan Bogdanovic 3 at the horn to give Utah the W. While Milwaukee’s roster remains thin, the Bucks will have the best player on the floor in any playoff series in the Eastern Conference. Is Giannis good enough to topple better rosters in Philly and Boston?

2. With a collection of young talent and a bona fide superstar in Jimmy Butler, the Heat are feisty in the East. Though his shooting numbers are poor, 38% from the field and 25% from 3, the playmaking of Justice Winslow is superb. Despite the lack of shooting, his ability to get to the rim draws defenses’ attention in the pick and roll, allowing him to thread pocket pass after pocket pass to the roller. When the weak side defense sags toward the lane to cut that action off, he’ll whip a cross-court pass to an open shooter. An enigma for much of his early career because of injuries and position confusion, Winslow is establishing himself as a top of the rotation player for a dangerous team.

3. The rules of basketball are hard.

4. Orlando has disappointed, and it’s time to throw more responsibility Jonathan Isaac’s way. The Magic offense is a slog; they’re worst in the league in 3 point percentage and 26th in points per game. Isaac owns Orlando’s best shooting numbers, hitting 36% from deep and 58% on twos while only taking 9 shots per game, fifth on the team. More of the offense needs to flow through him. Long and athletic, Isaac possesses the ideal NBA body type, giving him the versatility to guard anyone on the court and score from anywhere on the floor. His stat line against Dallas, 13 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals, and 5 blocks, is an example of the adaptability of his game. Though Orlando is 3-6, he’s 7th in the league in plus/minus rating. His 92.8 defensive rating is fourth. If the Magic are to rebound, realizing who their best player is needs to occur soon.

5. The trade to New Orleans has been a godsend for Brandon Ingram. Out of the L.A. spotlight, where he never seemed comfortable, Ingram has become one of the better scorers in the league. His 25.9 points per game rank 11th in the league on 53% shooting. A career 34% shooter from 3, he’s shooting 47% from deep to this point. Though the Pelicans aren’t winning, just 2-7, Ingram is becoming more consistent. New Orleans’ future will hinge on Ingram and Zion meshing on the court.

6. If you’re a big in the NBA, do your best not to get switched onto Trae Young.

7. Through the injuries and Boston’s drama of last year, it’s been easy to forget about Gordon Hayward. The best player on the East’s best team to this point, Hayward has re-established himself as the All Star he was in Utah. The league overlooks his size and strength. It allows him to find his comfort zones on the floor where he can shoot over his defender or probe closer to the basket. His mid-range shooting touch is elite. The Celtics were dealt a tough break Saturday, however, when Hayward fractured his left hand, putting him out of the lineup indefinitely. Boston may find their way into Finals contention, but they’ll need Hayward to return from this injury at the level he’s played so far.

8. If you could have made a bet before the season started on which NBA player would eat an edible on the team plane and have a panic attack, Dion Waiters would have been the 1:5 favorite, right? Who else is even on the board? JaVale McGee would make for a good exacta wager, I suppose.

9. While the trade for Mike Conley garnered the headlines, the Jazz signing of Bojan Bogdanovic was as important to the team’s title chances. With Giannis leading a Bucks second half comeback Friday, Bogdanovic shouldered the offensive load, scoring 13 straight for the Jazz and drilling a three at the buzzer to seal the win. Though Conley can take some playmaking pressure away from Donovan Mitchell, Bogdanovic’s clutch shooting is as important. The spacing he’ll provide those two in tight playoff games will be key for Utah to score enough to keep up with Houston and the L.A. teams.

10. Pascal Siakam may have won Most Improved Player last year, but how many expected him to develop into an MVP candidate? The Eastern Conference Player of the Week, Siakam is averaging 27, 9, and 3.7 while shooting 50% from the field and 37% from 3. His Raptors are 7-2, and play like this from him gives them a shot at the Eastern Finals. Though most expected a drop off and consequent tear down of the roster, the Raptors’ organization is proving once again that culture matters. Toronto is taking its title defense seriously.

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com