Early Starting Lineup Predictions for the 2015 NBA All-Star Game

The 2015 NBA All-Star Game is still more than two months away, but the process of choosing which 10 players will start between the East and West in New York has already begun.

In truth, the voting, which opened on Dec. 11, actually started later this season than it has in years past. That additional time could come in handy for fans, though, who are now free to choose whoever they want to fill the guard and forward spots on each squad, so long as the positions match up. Compare that to previous years, when voters had to write in candidates who weren’t pre-selected for the ballot by the league.

Those choices aren’t the only ones that have expanded considerably, either. Now, voters can make their voices heard through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, texting, the NBA Game Time app and, of course, the online ballot.

Now, it’s one thing to say that certain players are more deserving of selection than others. But the fans want who they want, and this being an exhibition for the fans, they usually get what they want.

So, rather than state cold, logical cases in support of those standout players who may not boast the same name recognition as some of their more hallowed peers, let’s take a stab at predicting which of the Association’s biggest stars the masses will choose to tip things off at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 15, based on recent popularity.

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Signs Suggest Oklahoma City Thunder Starting to Roll

OKLAHOMA CITY — Scary was an appropriate word to describe the sequence late in Thursday’s second quarter, the one that stopped some hearts in Ohio and left another superstar scrambling out of his seat in the locker room.

But strange works well as a description, too. It was strange, considering all of the bad breaks that have befallen the Thunder this season, that this time one of their stars was still standing, while an opponent’s, in this case one of Cleveland’s, was sprawled out in agony. 

Russell Westbrook had risen for a wing jumper, with Kyrie Irving extending his left arm toward him, his left side colliding with Westbrook’s torso, left knee knocking into Westbrook’s left knee, left foot planting awkwardly inward, all before stumble-sliding forward on the floor.

Westbrook didn’t find his feet, either, hurtling in reverse, but this time, he was fine. It was Irving who would require attention, from trainers and then teammates—Anderson Varejao helping him toward the tunnel, and LeBron James meeting him once he got there. 

“I felt something buckle,” Irving said of his knee later, vowing not to watch the replay.

What was Cavaliers coach David Blatt thinking as he watched it live?

“Fear, worry, concern…and hope,” Blatt said. “Which ultimately won the day.” 

It did, with Irving returning in the second half to play 23 of 24 minutes, looking tentative at times but not too troubled by pain. The Cavaliers, however, didn’t win a ninth straight game, as the Thunder recovered from squandering a large lead to ultimately prevail, 103-94.

Fear, worry, concern…and hope.

That’s also an accurate summary of the Thunder’s emotions during this 2014-15 season, now that they’ve survived 14 games without Westbrook, 17 games without Kevin Durant, and injuries to Perry Jones, Reggie Jackson and Anthony Morrow, among others, to reel off four straight victories.

This win, with James absent and Irving hobbling, won’t convince most that the Thunder are all the way back. Still, you certainly can see signs of a storm up the standings.

You can see a shot for them, at the least, to become one of the most dangerous No. 8 seeds in NBA history, a team with a chance to repeat the feat of the 1999 New York Knicks, who rose from the last spot in the playoffs to the NBA Finals. 

Those Knicks had some injuries too—Patrick Ewing missing 12 games, Latrell Sprewell missing 13—and they were dealing with a 50-game lockout-shortened season.

The Thunder have much more time, with 60 dates left on the schedule. But the East, while not the embarrassment it is now, wasn’t nearly as imposing as the current Western Conference. At 9-13, the Thunder are looking up at 11 other teams, including seven that are at least 10 games over .500, with seventh-seeded Dallas already a full seven games ahead. 

That may be too much ground to make up, especially in the short term, since the Thunder’s schedule isn’t especially forgiving, as the slate includes the Warriors, Trail Blazers, Spurs, Mavericks and two games with the Suns, all before 2015 starts.

But that eighth spot? It appears to be theirs to take, as they’re just 2.5 games behind Phoenix and likely to hurdle all of the teams between—Sacramento, New Orleans, Denver—within a couple of weeks. They will do so if their offensive rhythm remains somewhat ragged, as it was Thursday, simply because their top two players are just too talented.

Kevin Durant hasn’t played more than 30 minutes in any of his five games back, and many of those minutes were wasted on this night, as teammates failed to deliver the ball even while Matthew Dellavedova—scrappy for sure but seven inches shorter—was guarding him.

Durant missed all three shots in the first quarter and had tallied only 11 through the third, with Westbrook slithering and skying to do most of the scoring. Any concerns about Westbrook’s surgically repaired hand and knee should be quelled by now, simply by watching a selection of his hammer dunks over the past several days, including a vicious transition slam and stomp in Thursday’s second quarter. 

“Speed,” Westbrook said. “Speed is our advantage, man. We’ve got to use that to our advantage every night.”  

When asked to describe his comportment on the court, Westbrook was similarly spare with words.

“Angry,” he said simply.

His team has reason to be, after all that’s gone wrong so far this season, a title contender forced to spend so much time climbing back to respectability. Durant won’t repeat as MVP, not now, not with the starts of Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, John Wall, Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Blake Griffin, James Harden and others, not with the records of their teams, with the exception of the one for which Davis toils. But it won’t be long before Durant finds his stride. 

“You can see he’s getting his rhythm back,” Westbrook said. “He closed the game for us.” 

He did so on defense, with two blocks within 45 seconds, including an emphatic swat of rookie Joe Harris’ shot into the stands. He did so on offense, as the Thunder eventually exploited the mismatches, and Durant converted a dunk, turnaround, layup and two free throws in the final one minute and 45 seconds. 

“I thought Russell did a great job of finding him and putting him in positions to find him in a spot where they’re having trouble double-teaming,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “That’s something we’ve made some adjustments (about) in the last few games.” 

The Thunder have been exceptional defensively all season, even with so many players missing, allowing only one opponent to shoot above 50 percent. With Durant and Westbrook both back, opponents have shot 44.3, 38.1, 44.8, 40.5 and 36.5 percent. That will give them time to work out some offensive kinks. 

“We got a ways to go, I think we can get a lot better, which is good,” said forward Nick Collison, one of the few Thunder players to play as many as 21 of 22 games. “But I’ve seen it the last couple games. We’ve been running in the mud a little bit. The New Orleans game was awful. Philly, Detroit, we didn’t play great, kind of stuck in the mud. But Milwaukee, I was really encouraged by, tonight I was encouraged. But I think it’s just getting guys back and getting comfortable with how we’re gonna play.” 

Two guys in particular. 

“We’re pretty close,” Westbrook said.

“We’re growing, we’re growing,” Durant said. 

In many ways. Consider the case of the curmudgeonly Kendrick Perkins, who famously kicked Bulls center Joakim Noah out of the Thunder’s dressing quarters last November, repeatedly asking if “they just let anybody in the locker room.” Thursday night, before the media entered, James stopped by that same Thunder locker room to connect with Durant before heading to New Orleans with the Cavaliers. This time, Perkins let it pass.

“I actually know LeBron, so I’m not gonna be the bad guy in no more of those situations,” Perkins said with a laugh. “I refuse.” 

Perkins went on to add that while James not playing was disappointing for the fans, “For us, we’re like, yes! Him not playing is one less headache that we got to deal with.” 

The Kendrick Perkins comedy minute was a strange ending to a strange night, still relatively early in the Cavaliers’ extremely strange season. But if you want to describe the Thunder now, scary should be the word of choice. 

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Los Angeles Lakers: Price, Davis added to starting lineup

After starting out hot last week with wins against the Toronto Raptors and the Detroit Pistons, the Los Angeles Lakers suffered two consecutive blowout losses against two teams with strong backcourts and point guard play in the Washington Wizards and the Boston Celtics. In these losses, starting point guard Jeremy Lin was severely outplayed by his star opponents, including being held to no points against Washington while allowing John Wall to score 17 points and rack up a ridiculous 16 assists. While Lin played much better offensively vs. Boston (14 points on 62% shooting), his defense was more of the same, allowing Rajon Rondo to rack up a near triple-double with 12 points, 8 boards and ANOTHER 16 dimes. This trend of opposing point guards having outstanding games scoring and facilitating against the Lakers can be looked to as the primary cause of such heavy blowouts and is not acceptable in a league where the team can expect to face a talented point guard almost every night.
Ed Davis and Ronnie Price repl

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Kevin Love-LeBron James Pairing Starting to Click with Cleveland Cavaliers

Following a disappointing 92-90 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Nov. 19, Kevin Love seemed both frustrated and a little discouraged.

Although his Cleveland Cavaliers barely lost to the defending NBA champions, Love finished with just 10 points on 4-of-12 shooting from the floor. He was nearly invisible in the fourth quarter, attempting just one shot while watching teammate LeBron James dominate the ball.

Love and James, although only 10 games into their career together, were struggling to coexist.

“It’s come to a point where I’m just trying to find myself in this offense,” Love told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin after the game. “It’s almost related to when you come into the league; usually the guys that dominate the ball so much tend to learn a lot quicker than a guy like myself, a big man. So, I’m just trying to find different spots in the offense”

Fast forward eight contests, two-and-a-half weeks and a six-game win streak later.

Love has provided some impressive scoring outputs lately, with James helping to facilitate his development in the offense. The result has been a rise to No. 4 in the Eastern Conference for the Cavs, with a recent win over the conference-leading Toronto Raptors to boot.

Suddenly, things are looking up for the superstar pair.

Love and James are finally starting to click for the Cavaliers, thanks to changes both have made in their respective games.

 

Comfort and Continuity

Time heals all wounds—and gets Love better acclimated to coach David Blatt’s offense and playing alongside James.

That may not exactly be the saying, but it still holds true for the purpose of this article.

Love kicked off his recent stretch of strong play with a 23-point effort on Nov. 22 against the Toronto Raptors. That game marked his 12th of the season, a number that is eerily similar to a former teammate of James.

After spurning the Raptors to sign with the Miami Heat in 2010, Chris Bosh had to make his own adjustments next to James. Bosh had to learn to pick his spots, where James liked to deliver the ball and when to take on the scoring load himself.

For Bosh, things started to click 11 games into the season, almost an identical period of time to that of Love.

In their first 10 games playing off James, Bosh averaged just 14.5 points and 6.0 rebounds per game. Over the final 67 contests that season, Bosh’s stats inflated to 19.3 points and 8.7 rebounds.

Just gaining that experience around each other was key, as was a comfort level that can only be obtained with time.

Love is just beginning a similar experience, as he recently told Bleacher Report’s Nick Dimengo:

I think it’s just getting more comfortable and, as I mentioned, watching a lot of film. I’m getting the ball in my spots, and we’ve had good spacing these last few games. We’re doing a good job spreading out whenever LeBron or Kyrie are going downhill and attacking, getting to the free-throw line, coming off screens.

I just think, for me, I’ll continue to figure things out because the ball isn’t always in my hands, but as I’ve always said, I’ll do whatever it takes to help this team win, so that’s what I’m going to continue to do.

While his rebounding has remained solid throughout the season, (9.8 per game, best on Cavaliers), Love’s offense has taken a giant step forward.

In his first 11 games, Love averaged 15.9 points on 38.8 percent shooting from the field. Of his 12.6 shot attempts, 5.5 (44 percent) came from beyond the three-point line.

Over the last seven contests, Love has increased these numbers to 19.6 points on 53.3 percent shooting. While his shot attempts have remained similar (12.9), only 3.6 have come from deep (28 percent). Even though Love has cut down on his three-point attempts, he’s been much more efficient (40.0 percent to 36.7 percent) during the last seven games.

Love finally appears to be getting comfortable next to his all-world teammate, with James lending a helping hand as well.

 

Picking His Spots

As touched on previously, Love had been spending a good amount of time hanging out around the three-point arc on offense.

While Love is a very capable outside threat (36.3 percent career mark), he excels even more as a low-post scorer. Not the tallest or most athletic player in the league, Love relies on his positioning, footwork and body control to score in the paint and draw fouls (81.6 percent career free-throw shooter).

The Cavaliers can, and should, certainly use him to stretch the floor at times. Like most other big men, however, Love needs to get his touches inside first to get into the flow of the game.

During the last seven contests, we’ve seen Love get inside more often and reduce his number of three-point attempts.

Love’s shot chart for the season reveals his adoration for the three-ball, especially from above the break. He also struggled to convert from inside the restricted area, typically the feasting zone for talented post scorers.

During his recent strong play, we not see only an increase in touches and conversions from the restricted area, but a decrease in his three-point attempts as well.

Love is working to score the ball inside, with James looking to find the All-Star big at his favorite spots.

 

Looking for Love in All the Right Places

James is learning where Love needs the ball, and he’s been happy to accommodate him.

Here’s how James’ passes are being directed to Love, both overall this season and over the past seven games, via NBA.com. While his pass total has actual decreased slightly, the quality of looks and conversion success has increased significantly.

James’ Passes to Love PASS AST 2FGM 2FGA 2FG% FG%
Season Overall 15 1.9 1.6 2.9 52.8 41.3
Last Seven Games 14.6 2.6 2.1 3.7 57.7 46.3

Other than point guard Kyrie Irving, Love has been James’ most targeted teammate this season by far.

James is directing 25.2 percent of his total passes toward Love. The next closest Cavalier is Shawn Marion at 12.7 percent.

This is a great sign of cohesion between the two, as James recognizes the advantage that Love has over most defenders. One more telling stat? He’s finding Love even more often than he did Bosh a season ago (17.4 percent of all passes).

While James has gone through the trials of sacrificing shots, picking spots and catering to star teammates, Love is experiencing all of this for the first time.

The fact that James is dedicating so many of his looks to Love is a great sign this early in the season.

 

Establishing Roles

Despite standing 6’8″ and weighing 250-plus pounds, James may be the Cavaliers’ best pure point guard.

Irving is technically listed as the team’s starter at the position, although he’s played more off the ball since the arrival of James.

Over the past seven games, coinciding with Love’s offensive improvement, James is averaging 10.1 assists. His 7.9 per night for the season mark the second-highest average of James’ 12-year career.

Cleveland has been a better team when James handles the playmaking duties and serves as distributor. In 11 wins, James is averaging 9.1 assists; in seven losses, just 6.1 dimes.

Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer notes that James is very much aware the offense is clicking better when he runs the point:

James realized that while Kyrie Irving was an All-Star point guard, the Cavs are best with the ball in his hands. When James starts the half-court offense in the middle of the floor, it creates scoring opportunities for him and open shots for others.

James’ new love for the point guard position has been great news for the Cavaliers offense, especially Love.

For Love, it’s all about being aggressive in his role as a low-post scorer.

James has been happy to feed Love down low, provided he make his demands known, notes Joe Vardon of the Northeast Ohio Media Group:

If Kevin Love wants the ball in the post, he’ll get it, LeBron James said Friday before the Cleveland Cavaliers’ road game against the Washington Wizards.

‘It’s the demand,’ James said, weighing in on the 6-foot-10 Love’s stated discomfort in the offense through 10 games. ‘Kevin’s a guy, if he wants the ball in the post, he gets it in the post. If he demands it, we’ll give it to him.’

Now eight games later, it appears Love has done just that. James and Love finally appear to be on the same page, with each contributing to the other’s game.

With both likely to ink five-year extensions this offseason, this could be the beginning of a long and offensively-dynamic relationship.

Let the rest of the league be warned.

 

Greg Swartz has covered the Cleveland Cavaliers for Bleacher Report since 2010.

All stats provided by Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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Starting Five: Underrated players on the rise

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Marcus Smart still out, Tyler Zeller still starting

Yesterday the Celtics announced that Marcus Smart would not travel with the team for tonight’s matchup with the Hawks in Atlanta.  Via Mass Live’s Jay King:According to the team, Smart underwent a CT scan Monday morning at New England Baptist Hospital. The results were negative, but he stayed in Boston to undergo treatment while his teammates are on the road.Before Sunday’s game, head coach Brad Stevens called Smart ‘better, but not well enough to play.’ The guard participated in Saturday’s practice, but, since the Celtics did not scrimmage, the activity did not provide a thorough test.This evening’s contest will be the 10th straight that Smart has missed since spraining his ankle three-and-a-half weeks ago against the Pacers on November 7.In other lineup news, Tyler Zeller will start at center for the second consecutive game tonight:Zeller starts again tonight against Hawks. Stevens pondering other ways to alter rotation, though nothing major.— Mark Murphy (@Murf56) December 2, 201…

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How Safe Is Patrick Beverley’s Job as Houston Rockets’ Starting Point Guard?

As the Houston Rockets’ starting point guard Patrick Beverley continues to miss games with injury, the Rockets’ failure to miss him much raises questions about his importance to the starting lineup. It has been demonstrated he is replaceable.

That could come from within the existing structure of the team, with Isaiah Canaan taking over the starting duties, or the Rockets could look elsewhere to find someone in a trade.

 

Replacement from Within

Canaan has stepped into the starting role, so it may be only a matter of time before he assumes the starting job. But since neither Beverley nor Canaan has established himself as a particularly effective quarterback, it’s feasible that the Rockets look outside the team for a player to acquire via trade.

Statistically, Canaan and Beverley are close based on their numbers per 36 minutes:

The problem with just comparing their raw numbers is that there is so much disparity in whom each of the Rockets point guards have played with. Terrence Jones and Dwight Howard both have missed significant time due to injury, and that matters.

Who a guy plays with can impact his numbers, especially if he’s a role player. Taking the court with stars can increase efficiency and reduce overall numbers, while playing without them can have the opposite effects.

Ergo, it’s beneficial to see how the Rockets fare when Beverley and Canaan are running the point in various situations. Utilizing the excellent tool at NBAwowy.com, I looked at what the Rockets did with Beverley vs. Canaan in several different lineup situations.

I compared them with and without Dwight Howard to see how much he impacted their defense. I viewed their respective James Harden numbers to see how much he influenced their offense.

I also looked at how they did with Howard and Trevor Ariza (since Beverley is part of their defensive Big Three) and how both players did with Howard, Harden and Ariza as an indication of how they played in the starting lineup. Here are the results: 

What’s interesting is that Beverley is typically considered the superior defensive player and Canaan the better offensive player. Yet most of the combinations show the opposite—with the Rockets scoring more with Beverley and their opponents faring worse with Canaan.

There are two other things that are noteworthy when looking at the table: Houston’s Big Three of Ariza, Howard and Harden does better with Canaan; when Harden is out, Beverley is significantly better than Canaan at running the team.

Both of these factors suggest the Rockets may help themselves if they start Canaan and bring Beverley off the bench. If you can improve the starting five and the bench at the same time, it makes sense to do so.

 

Looking Elsewhere

Determining who the better starter between Beverley and Canaan is may be a flawed argument, though, in that it assumes that one or both is actually a starting-caliber point guard. And there is reason to believe that neither may be.

According to HoopsStats.com, the Rockets are getting 3.6 assists per game from the position, which is egregiously low. It’s by far the fewest in the league. The New York Knicks, who are getting 5.2, are 29th.

According to Basketball-Reference.com, there are 117 players who have logged 150 minutes who average assists at a greater rate than that.

Additionally, the Rockets are 20th in points from the 1, and they’re 27th in efficiency.

In part, that’s because Harden runs the offense, but that can’t happen 48 minutes a game. And to be fair, the Rockets give up the second-lowest efficiency to opposing point guards. Because of that, they essentially tie the battle.

But the Rockets need someone to carry the offense and generate opportunities for their shooters when Harden sits. And it’s apparent that that man is not on the roster.

This summer, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey told Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle (subscription required):  

On top of that, we still have our mid-level (exception). And even if we don’t sign someone like that now, very often there’s players that come free during the season where if you were to have the advantage of having a mid-level you can add them. We have the trade exception, which can add someone up to $8.4 million (in salary).

We have I think the best draft pick in the league for someone to trade for (the first-round pick acquired from New Orleans). I think we have the best set of international rights held – guys to either bring over or use in a trade.

He is referring to the $8.37 million trade exception they still have from trading Jeremy Lin to the Los Angeles Lakers

Remember that when using a trade exception, the incoming value of players can’t exceed the value of the exception nor can the exception be combined with other exceptions or players to add more value to it. So the biggest contract the Rockets could absorb would be $8.37 million.  

One potential target is former Rocket and current Phoenix Sun Goran Dragic. If the Suns are out of the playoff hunt and sellers at the trade deadline, they certainly might entertain a first-round pick for Dragic—particularly since he’s probably going to be an unrestricted free agent next summer.

By rule, while you can’t combine a contract with a player exception to bring back a larger contract, you can include other players, as long as they constitute a legal trade from the other team’s end. So the Rockets could include one of their intriguing youngsters, like Clint Capela, Nick Johnson or Troy Daniels.

Or they could include any combination of the eight second-round picks they either own or are owed between now and 2017. Or they could offer any of the nine players in Europe they own the draft rights to. 

However, they can’t offer their 2015 pick, as that belongs to the Los Angeles Lakers. So the soonest Houston could offer its top selection is 2017.

This all presumes, of course, some sort of assurance that Dragic would extend with the Rockets.

Certainly, it seems that a deal there could be worked out, and a starting five of Dragic, Harden, Ariza, Terrence Jones and Howard would make Houston a contender.

It’s hard to envision Beverley or Canaan as a long-term solution. Whether it’s Dragic or someone else, don’t be surprised to see the Rockets try and work a deal for another point guard before the season ends.

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Starting Five: Early season overachievers

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Warriors Starting Five Destroying the Rest of the NBA

At 12-2 on the season, the Golden State Warriors are clearly the best team in the NBA heading into the holiday weekend. Now winners of seven in a row and with an average point differential in the double digits, the Warriors are starting to separate themselves from the rest of the top teams in the Association.

Golden State’s starters are just about lapping the five-man lineup field pic.twitter.com/QTs3ysI01W
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) November 26, 2014

This is an absolutely stunning list of stats from Ben Golliver of SI.com. And while it was released prior to Golden State’s 17-point win over Miami on Tuesday and dominating win over Orlando on Wednesday, it just goes to show you how dominating the Warriors starting-five has been.
To make matters even more interesting, the Warriors have been without two-time All-Star David Lee for all but seven minutes this season.
Golden State’s starting-five is combining for a PER of nearly 90 through 14 games. In addition to that, this group has also combined for

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Kentucky, UCLA Finalizing Home-and-Home Series Starting in 2015

Two of the most celebrated programs in college basketball history are reportedly going to be seeing a lot of each other over the next several years.

According to ESPN.com’s Andy Katz, UCLA and Kentucky, who are already scheduled to meet Dec. 20 of this season, are close to finalizing a home-and-home series that would begin next year.     

The Bruins and Wildcats have combined for 33 Final Four appearances and 19 championships. While John Calipari‘s seemingly endless run of stacked recruiting classes has helped Kentucky to more recent success, there’s little question the combination of history and talent would turn this into one of the most entertaining non-conference matchups in the country.

Kyle Tucker of The Courier Journal put it simply:

Both teams face a gauntlet of a schedule in 2015-16. In addition to potentially playing each other, Kentucky will face Duke, Ohio State and Louisville, while the Bruins take on Gonzaga, North Carolina and potentially Kansas, Indiana or UNLV.

It’s tough to criticize the strategy, and it’s nice to see bigger programs continue to build loaded non-conference slates more and more.   

Not only does it get teams ready for conference play, but it also makes them more visible for potential recruits. And perhaps most importantly, a difficult strength of schedule is always beneficial come March.

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