The Committee (of One) is by no means ready to recant on its season-long belief that the Cleveland Cavaliers are destined for a third successive trip to the NBA Finals.
But we had to act.
We had to demote the Cavaliers to a season-low No. 7 in the latest edition of ESPN.com’s weekly NBA Power Rankings, because LeBron James & Co. are 8-9 since the All-Star break entering Monday night’s much-anticipated visit to San Antonio. They clearly need a wake-up call.
According to our friends at the Elias Sports Bureau, only twice in league history has a team posted a sub-.500 record after the All-Star break and gone on to win the championship. The 1957-58 St. Louis Hawks (12-16) and the 1968-69 Boston Celtics (19-20) are those two outliers.
The Cavs are advised to find that switch they’re convinced they can flip in the postseason before the regular season ends. Just to be safe.
As it stands, Cleveland’s lackluster approach and disintegrating D have combined to take LeBron out of the Most Valuable Player race. As individually brilliant as James has been statistically — he’s threatening to become the first player in league history to average career bests in both rebounds and assists in his 14th season — you’re not going to contend for an MVP trophy when your team can be classified as a disappointment.
Buckle up for a big week in the NBA, with Warriors at Rockets, Warriors at Spurs, Spurs at Thunder and Rockets at Warriors all to follow Cavs at Spurs. And don’t forget to tune into the overnight edition of SportsCenter that airs Tuesday at 1 a.m. ET for the weekly video feature that accompanies these rankings.
Profuse thanks, as always, go to ESPN Stats & Info and the Elias Sports Bureau — with ESPN research ace Micah Adams running the point — for all the background data they supply to assist the Committee’s efforts to arrange things here properly.
Entering what ranks as its toughest three-game stretch of the season according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, Golden State has snapped off a seven-game winning streak, which ranks as the Warriors’ fourth of that length this season compared to the 11 such streaks combined that the rest of the league has amassed. The Dubs are also 16-0 in the past 16 games in which Andre Iguodala scored 20 points (including Sunday’s triumph over stubborn Memphis) and have managed to carve out the best kind of rest stars can get along the way: Stephen Curry enjoyed four fourth quarters off in a row in the heart of this latest winning streak (in home wins over Orlando and Milwaukee, followed by roadies at Oklahoma City and Dallas) via blowout. After this week’s various challenges presented by a road back-to-back in Houston and San Antonio, followed by a home date with the Rockets, Golden State will play five of its final six games at home, with only two playoff-bound opponents (Washington and Utah) in that stack. Best of all, of course, is the news Chris Haynes and the Committee (of One) reported last week: Kevin Durant‘s return before the end of the regular season is looking increasingly likely.
Any hope of swiping the No. 1 seed in the West and home-court advantage from the Warriors realistically requires the Spurs to win the teams’ final regular-season encounter Wednesday night, which will mark the sixth successive meeting between the teams in San Antonio in which Golden State will be forced to play on the second night of a back-to-back. The Spurs, though, possess the league’s toughest remaining schedule according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, so don’t expect Gregg Popovich to suddenly tweak his philosophies and go chasing the top spot in the conference. San Antonio indeed still leads the league in games missed due to rest this season with 19, according to the folks at Pro Sports Transactions. That puts them six games ahead of Philadelphia’s 13 — 11 of which were rest games for Joel Embiid — with Cleveland in third at 10 (five belonging to LeBron James). The Spurs’ leaders in rest games, for the record, are Manu Ginobili (seven), Tony Parker (four) and LaMarcus Aldridge (four). After some shaky 9-for-24 shooting against his old friends from Portland in the first game back from his heart arrhythmia scare, Aldridge is averaging a promising 21.4 PPG and 7.8 RPG while shooting 52 percent from the floor in his past five games.
The 3-point line Nate Archibald did not have has certainly helped James Harden in this quest, but he’s just five points away from becoming the first player in NBA history to score at least 2,000 points and assist on 2,000 points in a single season. And for those of you deeply bothered by the NBA’s rest phenomenon, something tells us it’ll also please you to hear that Harden (as well as Russell Westbrook) is on course to play all 82 games. No NBA MVP has played all 82, believe it or not, since Kobe Bryant in 2007-08. Everyone will be talking about how tough this week’s schedule is for the Warriors, but it’s certainly no picnic for Houston, either, thanks to three games in four days and two of them coming against the West leaders. Harden has averaged 23.0 PPG, 12.0 APG and 10.5 RPG in the teams’ first two meetings but also struggled from the 3-point line (2-for-16) and with turnovers (14) in the two games.
The anticipation for Cleveland at Boston on ESPN on April 5 is certainly building. When the calendar flipped to 2017, Boston was six games out of first place in the Eastern Conference. Entering the final week of March, our friends at FiveThirtyEight are giving the Celtics a 66 percent chance to swipe the East’s No. 1 seed away from Cleveland, thanks to a much more favorable schedule and the impact Al Horford has made since returning to the lineup. Horford is averaging 14.8 PPG, 7.9 RPG and 6.0 APG in March while shooting 58.4 percent from the field, sparking Boston to a 10-2 record this month when their marquee free-agent signing is in uniform. The Celts lost their only two March games, both on the road, that Horford was forced to miss, including a March 5 stop in Phoenix. It was quite clear Friday night, though, that Boston was bothered far more by the circumstances surrounding Devin Booker‘s 70-point game for the Suns — in defeat — than the missteps that led to Tyler Ulis‘ buzzer-beater in the desert to win the teams’ first meeting.
Prior to the All-Star break, Toronto was 16th in the league in defensive efficiency. The Raptors are up to eighth in that same category now despite the ongoing absence of All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry, with coach Dwane Casey and his assistant in charge of the defense, Rex Kalamian, taking full advantage of the various gifts on D possessed by trade-deadline newcomers Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker. The Raptors’ considerable improvement on the defensive end, paired with a slower pace, has enabled them to go 11-5 since the break while Lowry’s injured wrist heals. As of Monday morning, Toronto was one of only four teams in the league perched in the top 10 in both offensive efficiency (fifth) and defensive efficiency (eighth), joining Golden State (No. 1 and No. 2), San Antonio (No. 6 and No. 1), Boston (No. 8 and No. 10). Last week’s win over Chicago, meanwhile, not only brought a halt to Toronto’s 11-game losing streak to the Bulls but also ranks as the Raptors’ sixth comeback win this season from 15-plus points down, which matches Indiana for the league lead.
The Wizards have made up 3½ games on the reigning champions this month and, dare we say it, earned a slice of vengeance Saturday night by shredding the Cavs in Cleveland. It wasn’t just the first game of a crucial five-game road trip but marked the teams’ first meeting since Feb. 6, when the Cavs manufactured that unforgettable 140-135 overtime triumph in the nation’s capital that stands as one of the games of the season. The Wiz, as a result, are closing in on their first 50-win season since 1978-79, when they made their second of back-to-back trips to the NBA Finals, losing that time to Seattle after beating the Sonics to win it all in 1977-78. It would appear that squaring off with the Cavs brings out the best in John Wall, who has five double-doubles in the teams’ past seven meetings. Bradley Beal, meanwhile, is averaging better than 23 PPG this season while shooting better than 40 percent from the 3-point line; Kevin Durant and Vince Carter are the only other players in league history to do so at 23 years old or younger.
The Cavs allowed 120 points or more in six games entering March. It has happened five times alone this month to a defense that, by now, you’ve surely heard is in tatters. We can hit you with all the reasonable alibis about the Cavs’ intermittent interest in the regular season … and their many injuries this season … and the oft-cited reality that the rest of the Eastern Conference still has to prove that it can exploit Cleveland’s vulnerabilities. Yet it’s also true that, when you rank 29th in defensive efficiency this month — down six spots from where the Cavs were in February — it’s fair to question whether you still have the right to talk about switch-flipping as soon as the playoffs arrive. The Kyle Korver trade was widely hailed as a masterstroke, by us as loudly as anyone, but Cleveland is 19-17 since Korver made his Cavs debut Jan. 10 in Utah. Which is hard to believe no matter how banged up the champs have been. (Much-needed diversion to lighten the mood: LeBron James is just 41 points away from passing Shaquille O’Neal’s 28,596 points for seventh place on the all-time scoring list after Bron passed Hakeem Olajuwon, Elvin Hayes and Moses Malone earlier in the season.)
Gordon Hayward is ailing. Rudy Gobert is grumbling. And the degree of difficulty is rising in Utah’s scramble to keep hold of the West’s No. 4 spot after a (mostly) rough week that managed to dampen the mood in the SLC even as the Jazz — thanks to Denver’s home loss Sunday night to New Orleans — were clinching their first playoff berth since 2012. According to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, Utah sports the league’s second-toughest remaining schedule behind San Antonio, which will obviously make it tough to hang on in the race to secure home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs. Four consecutive road defeats this month would suggest that the Jazz badly need home-court advantage if they want to see Round 2, but matters are complicated further by the fact that they’ve lost the season-series tiebreaker to the two teams chasing them the closest in the standings (Clippers and Thunder).
Sunday’s loss in Houston didn’t necessarily cost Russell Westbrook his shot at the MVP trophy, because voters are surely too shrewd to make a decision of this magnitude on a one-game basis. But it was a reminder that a first-round matchup with James Harden and the Rockets would not be ideal for the Westbrook and his Thunder, who have struggled to keep up with the offensive firepower Houston possesses and lost the season series 3-1. (Westbrook & Co. certainly won’t come out and say it, but sneaking into the 4-5 matchup with Utah to let their bigs tangle with the Jazz bigs would be much more preferable.) Although the defeat was OKC’s first in the last 12 games in which Westbrook recorded a triple-double, dating to a Jan. 29 loss in Cleveland, all Angry Russ has to do now is average 6.5 rebounds and 7.2 assists in the season’s final 10 games to clinch that historic triple-double average. Not-so-bold prediction: He’s a lock to do it. (ESPN’s Kevin Pelton officially lists the odds at 99 percent.)
Damian Lillard is up to eight 30-point games in March, good for a new franchise record. And the Blazers, after 51 days of chasing, are back up to No. 8 in the West … or at least a share of the West’s final playoff spot entering Tuesday night’s big home date with Denver. The Blazers would already hold sole possession of the eighth slot had they not suffered a disappointing home loss last Wednesday to Milwaukee, but the schedule is totally in their favor now. While the Nuggets will be traveling for seven of their final nine regular-season games, Portland will be the home team for seven of its last nine games and, as a result, has to be classified as the favorite to land a first-round assignment against Golden State. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index certainly sees it that way, having bumped Portland’s chances of finishing eighth up to 71 percent as of Monday morning … compared to 27.5 percent for Denver.
A 15-point home loss to the up-and-down Bulls, given the run they’ve been on lately, dragged the Bucks back to reality after a dreamy 4-2 road trip that included wins over the Clippers and Blazers when neither was expected. Six of Milwaukee’s final nine games are roadies, with all nine opponents either currently holding a playoff berth or still fighting for one. Khris Middleton had a rough weekend shooting the ball (7-for-30) against Atlanta and Chicago, but remains at 48.5 percent from the field in the month of March (45.5 percent on 3s). Giannis Antetokounmpo, meanwhile, continues to be locked in battle with Nikola Jokic in what might well rank as the most agonizing (and sadly underpublicized) steel-cage duel for the league’s Most Improved Player award in recent memory.
Hassan Whiteside (ankle) is playing hurt. Dion Waiters (ankle) has missed Miami’s last three games and isn’t even with the team on its current three-game road trip that still includes stops in Detroit and New York. Goran Dragic responded to that nasty recent eye injury with 33 points in his first game back in the lineup but has sparked chatter about how much he’s missing Waiters by shooting just 36 percent from the floor in averaging a mere 15.6 PPG over his past five games. The margin of error, in other words, is exceedingly slender for Erik Spoelstra in his quest to drag the Heat into the postseason despite that infamous 11-30 start … as well as the Coach of the Year sweepstakes. Losses to close last week against Toronto (home) and Boston (road) have saddled the Heaters with their first losing streak since Feb. 11-13.
The Nuggets just inflicted a 13-point defeat on LeBron James and the Cavs, followed it up with a win in Indiana over a Pacers team that boasts a 26-11 record at home and still can’t start the new week feeling good about themselves thanks to a costly slip-up Sunday night at home to New Orleans that might have wrecked Denver’s playoff dreams. It was the first of three meetings with the Pelicans in a late-season span of 13 days and, thanks to a 25-point pounding, opened the door for Portland to move into a tie for the No. 8 spot entering Tuesday night’s Nuggets-at-Blazers showdown. I suppose a triumph in Portland to even the season series at 2-2 would brighten Denver’s outlook immediately, but let’s face it: Sunday’s encounter with the Pels was a game Denver really had to have knowing that seven of its final regular-season dates are roadies. The Nuggets, incidentally, are tied with Philadelphia for employing a league-high 28 different starting lineups this season, ahead of Brooklyn (27) and three teams with 25 (New Orleans, Sacramento and San Antonio).
The Grizzlies continue to lead the league with a combined four wins this season against Golden State and San Antonio, but they just lost road games to both powerhouses over the weekend. Marc Gasol (strained left foot), furthermore, was held out of Memphis’ date with the Warriors as first-year coach David Fizdale strains to keep his two most important players (Gasol and point guard Mike Conley) as healthy as he can heading into the postseason, with yet another first-round matchup against the Spurs looking increasingly likely. The difference this time, of course, is that the familiar sight of Memphis vs. San Antonio in Round 1 — for the fourth time since 2004 — would mean Marc Gasol vs. brother Pau Gasol in a best-of-seven series for the first time.
The Committee was in the house with an up-close seat for what we thought was a rather heartbreaking Clippers loss in Dallas. L.A.’s 97-95 defeat in Big D was sealed when J.J. Redick’s wonderful look at a potential game-winning triple narrowly missed. Yet that experience was downright pleasant compared to what befell the Clips on Sunday, when they played a second consecutive afternoon game that they’ll surely never forget. Sacramento’s 22-3 finishing kick enabled the tanking Kings to overcome an 18-point deficit in the final five minutes, which is the sort of comeback that our ESPN Stats & Info pals say has happened only once in nearly 7,000 games over the past 20 seasons. Look closely at this number again: NBA teams were 6,746-1 over the past 20 seasons when leading by at least 18 points in the final five minutes. Doc Rivers and his squad, like we said, won’t soon forget what it was like to bring a stretch of eight games in 12 days to a close with consecutive 12:30 p.m. tipoffs on a Saturday and Sunday, even if they did also clinch the season-series tiebreaker with Utah before the Sacramento unraveling.
If you want to know about the depths of the Pacers’ Paul George conundrum, we happily point you to colleague Zach Lowe’s opus on the state of Larry Bird’s team. There are details in that piece that will keep Pacer People enthralled for days. Allow us to merely pass along here that the Pacers’ back-to-back losses last week to the Celtics (road) and Denver (home) brought a halt to their run of 15 consecutive games in which they alternated wins and losses. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that left the Pacers just one short of an obscure league record; my beloved Buffalo Braves alternated wins and losses over a stretch of 16 games during the 1977-78 season that would prove to be their last. Something to watch away from the PG-13 drama: Myles Turner is averaging just 11.0 PPG and 6.7 RPG since the All-Star Game after checking in at 15.6 PPG and 7.2 RPG heading into the break.
Just when you thought it was safe to classify the Bulls as lottery-bound following a 2-8 funk, Jimmy Butler dazzled in his return to Marquette turf, uncorking a career-high 14 assists in a cruise past Milwaukee that stretched Butler’s run of games with a double-digit dime total to three in a row. It also didn’t hurt that the back-in-favor Rajon Rondo (18 points, 9 rebounds, 9 assists) flirted with a triple-double while Nikola Mirotic, who also has played his way back into the rotation, rung up 28 points. Also don’t forget that the Bulls’ remaining schedule enhances their chances of sneaking into the East’s No. 8 spot, since six of their remaining eight games will come against sub-.500 teams. The Bulls, furthermore, are off until Thursday night, when they put their wild run of 18 consecutive home wins on TNT Thursdays up against the Cavs. We’re talking about the same UnpredictaBulls, remember, who are a combined a 8-5 against the top four teams in the East while also sporting wins over Golden State and San Antonio. Back to Butler: Chicago’s lone All-Star is averaging 26.2 PPG, 6.5 RPG and 5.6 RPG per 36 minutes when the injured Dwyane Wade is off the floor this season compared to per-36 averages of 19.4 PPG, 5.6 RPG and 4.8 RPG when playing with Wade.
The late-season collapses underway in Atlanta and Detroit haven’t merely opened the door for Milwaukee and Miami to make moves up the Eastern Conference ladder. The Hornets just held Devin Booker to the lowest scoring total (23) in league history in the mere 11 games that have followed a 70-point eruption and thus find themselves back in something resembling contention for a playoff berth, trailing No. 8 Miami by just two games when they awoke Monday. So don’t abandon those dreams yet, Charlotteans, of back-to-back trips to the playoffs for the local team for the first time since a three-season run from 2000-02. I know we talk a lot about the Hornets’ nightly average scoring margin in this little comment cyberspace — maybe too much — but it’s hard to ignore when Charlotte’s plus-0.9 reading is actually fifth best in the conference.
The math says Dallas remains alive in the chase for a playoff berth. The reality of the situation suggests that the Mavs know they’re highly unlikely to erase a deficit of 3½ games with just 10 games to play and leapfrog both Portland and Denver to squeeze into the West’s No. 8 spot. The unofficial confirmation of Dallas’ self-awareness is the fact Rick Carlisle is giving more minutes at point guard to second-half revelation Seth Curry to try to get him more acclimated to the position. The Mavs are also trying to increase the workload for newly acquired center Nerlens Noel, who has helped Dallas to a 9-4 record when he’s in uniform, including an 8-1 mark when he logs at least 20 minutes. Another late-season goal is surely helping Harrison Barnes finish the season as a 20 PPG scorer when he’s so close; Barnes is taking two shots fewer per game since the All-Star break and begins the week at No. 33 in the league at 19.7 PPG.
Is an MVP vote or two in order for Paul Millsap? Some fifth-place votes at the very least? The Hawks are 0-8 this season when their two-way cornerstone forward doesn’t play … losing those eight games by an average of (yikes) 17 points. The Hawks, to be more precise, are averaging a mere 94.0 PPG when Millsap can’t go, compared to 111.0 PPG allowed without their lone All-Star. And their collective health continues to deteriorate at the worst time; Thabo Sefolosha (groin strain) joined Millsap and Kent Bazemore (both out with knee issues) on the sideline Sunday for a home loss to the Nets that stretched Atlanta’s losing streak to seven. As crazy as this would have sounded before Millsap got hurt, these guys suddenly can’t even count on a playoff spot thanks to the wild jumble in the East from No. 5 on down to No. 11, meaning that the league’s second-longest active streak of postseason appearances (nine) has been thrust into some jeopardy.
I know, I know. The early returns on the Anthony Davis/DeMarcus Cousins pairing don’t look great. The Pels are a mere 5-8 with Cousins in the lineup since the blockbuster deal but moved to 3-0 without Cousins by routing the Nuggets in Denver on Sunday night. Worse yet, New Orleans has averaged 117.3 PPG in those three victories, winning them by an average of 21.3 PPG. It says here, though, that you should probably give these two a training camp together before writing off the whole Boogie and The Brow concept completely. It also says here that you shouldn’t forget that the Pels are still better off than they were before the trade even if they have to turn around and deal Cousins themselves. We should also note that Cousins’ 41 points and 17 boards in a win last week over Memphis gave him two 40-and-15 games this season; Davis leads the league with five. (NBA D-League find Jordan Crawford, who’s predictably getting zero attention given the focus on the two big men, is averaging 13.5 PPG and shooting 50 percent from the floor in 10 games as a Pelican.)
Meet your new leaders in the league’s Most Disappointing Team of the Season rankings. The Pistons have dropped six of seven to crater into the Central Division basement and, based on the latest available evidence, look increasingly likely to squander a playoff berth judging by how uncompetitive they were in road losses to Chicago (22 points) and Orlando (28) after a narrow defeat in Brooklyn. So much for the notion that a home win over Cleveland on March 9 might serve as some sort of springboard to propel this group back into the playoffs. Changes have to be coming in the offseason … with more and more people asking if Andre Drummond (who’s shooting 39.6 percent at the free throw line) should be bracing for a move as much as Reggie Jackson should. Drummond’s all-around effectiveness has been so spotty that no one in Motown was celebrating his latest milestone; he’s just the second player in league history (along with Dwight Howard) to post four 1,000-rebound seasons before his 24th birthday.
On the same night brother Robin Lopez was tangling with Serge Ibaka in a scuffle that featured clear punches if not clear-cut connections, Brook Lopez was sinking his first career buzzer-beater to seal a 98-96 win over Detroit that was only getting the Nets’ big week started. Comfortable victories over the Suns and Hawks would soon follow to nudge the Nets to a record of 7-8 this month. These same Nets, you’ll recall, went 4-37 from December through February. The Cavs, in case you’re wondering, are 6-8 in March. It’s no coincidence, of course, that Jeremy Lin has been available for first-year coach Kenny Atkinson pretty all month, which makes Brooklyn so much more functional. The Nets are 9-19 with Lin in uniform … and 7-38 without him. (File this away for your calendars: The Lopez twins turn 29 Saturday.)
The Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, Seattle Mariners, Miami Marlins and now the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves. Those are the five franchises, in North America’s traditional four major team sports, that have missed out on the playoffs since the 2003-04 season, when the Wolves went to the Western Conference finals in their last postseason appearance. This presumably won’t make success-starved Wolves fans feel any better, but the playoff drought is actually longer in all four of those other cases. (Buffalo and Cleveland have missed the NFL playoffs since 1999 and 2002, respectively, while Seattle and Miami last appeared in Major League Baseball’s postseason in 2001 and 2003, respectively.) We don’t even need to ask if any of those tidbits can bring any comfort to first-year Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau, whose current losing streak (six in a row) is the longest of his NBA head-coaching career.
So what if the opposition sports a combined record of 49-98? Orlando’s wins last week over Phoenix and Philadelphia represent its first back-to-back W’s since (gulp) Dec. 23 and 26. The victory over the Sixers was particularly notable because the Magic, after 55 consecutive defeats in that situation, overturned a 15-point halftime deficit. NBA teams were actually 8-181 this season when trailing by 15 points or more at the half before the Magic’s rally, which wound up sparking a three-win week when Orlando inflicted one of the most painful losses of the season for old friend Stan Van Gundy’s Detroit Pistons. In a 115-87 home rout of the Pistons, Elfrid Payton‘s 14 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists made him, at 23, this league’s youngest player to record four triple-doubles in a month since LeBron James had four in November 2007 at the age of 22.
Quite a Sunday for Buddy Hield. Exactly one year after he led Oklahoma to a Final Four berth in the college game, Hield was at the heart of Sacramento’s ridiculous resurrection in Clipperland, supplying half the points in the Kings’ unfathomable 22-3 closing surge that enabled the visitors to do the seemingly impossible and erase an 18-point deficit in the final five minutes. (Hield then capped his evening by joining the “NBA Insiders” show on ESPN Radio to relive the comeback.) In the bigger picture, meanwhile, Sacramento finds itself in a scrum of five teams — along with Minnesota, New York, Orlando and Philadelphia — that could finish with anywhere from the league’s fourth-worst record to the eighth-worst in a dose of jockeying that matters as much for the future of the franchises involved as anything we’ll see in the various East and West playoff races.
On the same night Devin Booker was hanging 70 points on the Celtics, Dario Saric was ringing up a career-high 32 points that you understandably might have missed to go with 10 rebounds in a win over the Bulls. Saric then endured a 3-for-15 shooting nightmare in a loss at Indiana, but his overall numbers for the month — 19.0 PPG and 7.1 RPG on 45 percent shooting from the floor and 36 percent shooting from deep — have established him as the closest thing you’ll find to a Rookie of the Year co-favorite with teammate Joel Embiid, given Embiid’s ongoing unavailability. New York’s Willy Hernangomez and the Los Angeles Lakers’ Ivica Zubac are the only other rookies besides Embiid with a PER above the league average of 15.0, but neither plays 20 minutes per game. The Lakers’ Brandon Ingram leads rookies at 29.3 MPG, followed by Milwaukee’s Malcolm Brogdon (26.4 MPG) and Saric (26.2 MPG). Let’s see what sort of ROY push Saric can mount in Philly’s last nine games.
The Knicks were 17-65 as recently as the 2014-15 season. They were 29-53 in 2009-10. They were 23-59 in both 2007-08 and 2005-06. So there have certainly been worse seasons in recent memory than what we’re seeing at Madison Square Garden in 2016-17. But the stream of chaos surrounding this franchise feels as steady and unrelenting as it ever has, with Joakim Noah‘s 20-game suspension only adding to the woe in the first year of a four-year, $72 million contract that was looking ill-advised (to put it charitably) long before the suspension. These Knicks actually lugged a 16-13 record into a Christmas Day loss at home to the Celtics but haven’t won back-to-back games in 2017 and sport the league’s second-worst record since Christmas at 11-33. Brooklyn is 9-35 since Christmas, but if the Nets’ recent uptick continues, New York might be relying on the Lakers (10-30) or Suns (13-31) to keep them out of the post-Christmas basement.
The Suns are sure finding ways to stay in the headlines while they continue to stack up losses that should keep them within range of winning the draft lottery in May. Example No. 1 was the youngest lineup in league history trotted out by coach Earl Watson in a heavy loss Thursday at Brooklyn, which turned out to be a younger fivesome than seven of the eight teams that played in the NCAA’s Sweet 16 that night. The Suns, of course, followed that up Friday night in Boston with Devin Booker’s 70-point eruption, making him just the sixth player in league history to crack the 70s in a single game alongside Wilt Chamberlain (100), Kobe Bryant (81), David Thompson (73), David Robinson (71) and Elgin Baylor (71). His collegiate career high at Kentucky was a mere 19 points, but Booker just became the ninth NBA player this season to post a 50-point game — good for a new single-season league record — and the youngest player in league history (20 years, 145 days) to score as many as 60 points.
This would seem like a good time to remind folks that new Lakers front-office czar Magic Johnson will enter the draft lottery in May with just a 55.8 percent chance of landing a top-three pick if the Lakers finish the regular season with the league’s second-worst record. That figure worryingly drops to 46.9 percent if the Lakers wind up with the league’s third-worst record, meaning that the Sixers would actually have a 53.1 percent chance to inherit the pick, since the Lakers (as you’re surely well aware by now) lose it if it falls outside of the top three. Last week’s statue ceremony to honor Shaquille O’Neal, meanwhile, prompted ESPN Stats & Info to calculate that Shaq would have joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Dirk Nowitzki in the NBA’s exclusive 30,000-point club had he been able to shoot 65.2 percent from the free throw line. O’Neal was only a 52.7 percenter from the line and had to settle for 28,596 points, which will likely leave him eighth all-time by week’s end (as explained in the Cavs’ comment).