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Elephant Sport’s NBA Quarterly Report – Pt. 3

As we home in on the final months of the season, it’s clear that this NBA campaign has been one of sheer unpredictability. Perhaps not at the top of either the Western or Eastern conferences, but certainly elsewhere.

The trade deadline saw one of the biggest moves in recent memory, while other teams reinforced smartly ahead of the play-offs.

Without further ado…

Best Team: Boston Celtics

It’s bewildering how far the Celtics have come in such a short period of time.

At the start of the season, they were struggling to find consistency with Isaiah Thomas’ brilliance being tossed away by under-performing team-mates.

At this point, the Celtics are the best team in the NBA, not just a surprise package.

They are the only team that can step to the Cleveland Cavaliers in both the regular season, and the play-offs. They have offered the Eastern Conference, as well as neutrals, the hope of an upset in the road to the Finals.

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Little Isaiah floats a shot against 7ft Marcin Gortat

Thomas’ electrifying form is infectious, and has clearly spread to those around him.

Jae Crowder looks a man possessed, while Jaylen Brown is making a case for being one of the standout performers in his age-bracket.

Coach Brad Stevens has yet to manage a play-off game, so it will be interesting to see how his youthfulness and hunger translates to the biggest stage.

As of right now, his progression has been impeccable. Not only has he got the Celtics in 2nd place, two wins behind the Cavs, but he already has an All-Star game under his belt.

GM Danny Ainge’s reluctance to make a trade at the deadline could hurt this team in the play-offs, especially since their interior defence is non-existent.

But the percentages they are currently shooting at could see them blow out any team on any given day.

Worst Team: Brooklyn Nets

One has to wonder if copy and pasting part two of this quarterly report would suffice in this section. But, somehow, the Nets have worsened.

Not only did they make no significant push at the trade deadline, they allowed 3-point shooting maverick Bojan Bogdanovic to move to Washington for next-to-nothing.

Without a shooting presence, and an underperforming Jeremy Lin and Brook Lopez, the Nets look nailed on for one of the worst NBA season records of all-time.

They were 8-33 when the previous report was written. 21 games later, they have only won two more. And only three of their wins have come in their own conference.

The Nets look a dishevelled franchise. Broken, unfixable and unwatchable. New York has become devoid of any team worth shouting over.

Most Improved Team: Washington Wizards

Not only are the Wizards the most improved team, they’re undoubtedly the most entertaining.

A backcourt comprised of John Wall and Bradley Beal has become one of the most talked about partnerships this season. Electrifying and productive in the clutch, these two have a genuine chance at making the conference finals this year.

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John Wall prepares to shoot a free-throw

They’re third in the conference, boasting 17 wins in their last 23 games. In the first quarterly report, we had them down as one of the most disappointing teams.

Right now, they look unstoppable. Whether that be going toe-to-toe with the Warriors and beating them, or taking the Cavs to overtime, the Wizards look like the real deal.

Wall is posting up career highs in points, assists and 3pt percentages. Likewise, Beal. Around them is a team made up of hot shooters and workhorses.

Otto Porter Jr. has the best 3pt shooting percentages in the entire league – yes, higher than Steph Curry and James Harden.

Kelly Oubre Jr. looks to be developing into a future star of this league, meanwhile Markief Morris is doing all the dirty work at both ends.

With the smart acquisition of Bogdanovic at the deadline, the Wizards have become even more of a sharpshooting team. This could be the key to any play-off upset.

Most Improved Player: Nikola Jokic

Nikola Jokic has gone from the typical brutish European centre to a player of immense, unplayable quality. He’s posted up multiple triple-doubles in the last 20 games, driving the Denver Nuggets from mediocrity to a near-lock for that 8th place play-off position.

He’s one of the league leaders in assists, and one of the most proficient passers around. A playmaking maverick, a rebounding machine and a point-hoarder, Jokic is utterly phenomenal.

Despite his bulk and height, he moves elegantly and to a level that we have never seen in the NBA. If there’s one player who deserves this award at the end of the season, it’s Jokic. From complete unknown to one of the hottest names around.

Best Trade: DeMarcus Cousins to New Orleans Pelicans

I wanted to avoid the blockbuster move as much as I could, since I feel as though Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker to the Toronto Raptors is the move that most improves a team and equips them best for a play-off push.

But it’s DeMarcus Cousins. Moving away from the team where he’s spent his entire career and joining former college team-mate Anthony Davis.

This move was mind-blowing for the NBA. Not only do the Pelicans now have the two best big-men in the league, they undoubtedly have all the potential in the world to bring a ring to New Orleans.

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DeMarcus and Davis, reunited

Rebounding has long been an issue for Championship winners in the past; with the Warriors for example it’s been their Achilles heel this year.

The Rockets have the same problem; the Cavs sometimes struggle… the list goes on.

The Pelicans not only succeed in that area, they thrive and feed off it. Second-chance points are their best friend. If they can sneak into the play-offs this year, expect this blockbuster trade to upset the biggest of teams.

If not, they’re set to be the most anticipated team to watch for next season.

If they can acquire the right pieces to place around this titanic, unplayable frontcourt, they’re legitimate contenders next season.

Surprise Package: Miami Heat

The Miami Heat traded off Dwayne Wade in the summer, effectively leaving their team devoid of star quality. But the players who were nothing more than good, have now become great.

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Hassan Whiteside contests a call

After a shoddy start to the season, where they were rooted to the bottom of the conference for 30 straight games, the Heat are now one win from a play-off spot.

How they achieved such a feat is tough to explain. They registered a 13-game win streak – the longest we’ve seen this season from any team – including victories over the Warriors, Rockets and Cavaliers.

 

With the hustle, rebounding and blocking of Hassan Whiteside, the Heat are always a scrappy team to play against.

They’re physical and rough, with emphasis placed on bullying opposition teams off the court.

But, beyond that physicality, is a gorgeous style of play within their ball movement.

Players like Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters are facilitators of the highest order, creating space on the court, knocking down 3’s from improbable range and finding Whiteside in the paint for easy points.

This trio have brutalised opposition and dragged the Heat from misery to magnificence. It will be interesting to see how this young, untested team can cope in the play-offs, if they make it.

Offensive Play of the 3rd quarter:

Watch as LeBron James forces an entertaining game vs the Wizards into overtime with one of the craziest shots we’ve seen all season:

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Defensive Play of the 3rd quarter: 

LeBron’s so good, he becomes the first player in our reports to be awarded offensive and defensive play in the same quarter. This chasedown block on Courtney Lee is stunning:

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Elephant Sport’s NBA Quarterly Report – Pt. 2

A thrilling 2016-17 NBA season has thus far delivered entertainment, elite individual performances and plenty controversy.

But, best of all, we have only just reached the halfway mark. Allow Elephant Sport to run through some of the most exciting categories since our first instalment.

Best Team: Houston Rockets

Before even diving into the excellence of Mike D’Antoni’s team, we need look no further than the Rockets’ record during this half. Led by James Harden, they are sitting comfortably in 3rd seed with a 30-10 record. Add to this only two losses in 19 games.

If the Rockets were the most improved team in the first quarter, they are undoubtedly the best one in the league right now. This has been aided by the return of potential defensive all-star, Patrick Beverley.

A lot has been said about Houston’s lack of defensive prowess but, with the aforementioned point-guard back, many of the criticisms have been erased. Beverley is averaging more rebounds than any other player in the team. Meanwhile, the Rockets have climbed into the top 15 defensive sides in the league.

But beyond number-crunching, this is a team rich in chemistry and unity. In a recent match against the Dallas Mavericks, small-forward Trever Ariza got into a verbal altercation with Salah Mejri. At the end of the game, the entire Rockets squad waited for the Mavs’ centre in an attempt to confront him.

While violence is not to be condoned, especially in a professional environment, it’s refreshing to see the Rockets team stick up for one another when, just a few months ago, they had a lot of internal disagreements and issues.

The Rockets are flawed – they certainly struggle to close out games and protect the rim when Clint Capela is missing – but they are living and prospering by the 3-ball. It could very well see them usurp many teams in the play-offs come season end. 

Worst Team: Brooklyn Nets

Neither Jeremy Lin nor Brook Lopez can lift the Nets out of their current rut. Which is ironic, since an arrangement of both their names phonetically adds up to Brooklyn.

This pun is atrocious – much like the Nets have been this season. They are currently bottom of the Eastern Conference and, in 41 games, have yet to reach double digits in wins.

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Brook Lopez warming up

Where the Nets have struggled most is in the creative department. Lin has been underwhelming and inefficient when running the point. Even when he has been at his very best, he has a lack of sharpshooters to lay the ball off to.

On the other hand, Lopez has tried his hardest to deliver wins. But in the game where he dropped a mammoth 38 points – all from inside the post – his team still lost by a comfortable margin.

Perhaps the over-reliance on these two stars has created a pressure hard to overcome for the Nets. But what is certain is this: they have an inefficient bench unit and a non-existent supporting cast.

Sadly, they look to be tanking for the remainder of the season – a testament to how insurmountable they view a comeback or, at the very least, improvement. 

Most Improved: Utah Jazz

 The Utah Jazz were almost unanimously everyone’s sleeper tip going into the new season. Many suspected they would finish in the top four in the West and, while they are currently sitting in 5th, just imagining that would have been far-fetched 20 games ago.

After the first quarter, Utah looked devoid of confidence and quality. Despite the dominant play of Gordon Hayward and the robustness of Rudy Gobert, the Jazz were struggling to string offensive plays together.

Fast-forward to January and they are now one of the league’s in-form teams. While the aforementioned players have turned in titanic performances, it is in the coaching that the Jazz have seen the biggest improvements.

Quin Snyder has drawn up a variety of plays revolving around a combination of point-guard George Hill and Hayward that has led to some excellent ball circulation in recent weeks.

Whether it is the long-range alley-oop, or the bounce pass-to-scorer, the two have struck up a chemistry unlike anything Vivint Arena has seen this term.

Add to that Rudy Gobert averaging one rebound short of the number one spot and the Jazz finally look like that team everyone had expected them to be. 

Who Needs to Trade Immediately: Toronto Raptors

 The Raptors may be one of the finer teams in the league; in their conference, they are second to only the Cleveland Cavaliers. While there is no shame in being second to the reigning champions and LeBron James, there is shame in being miles behind them.

In the three times the teams have met up this season, the Raptors have been torn apart. Two of these games were in this highlighted half.

What the Raptors missed most was a dominant centre – somebody who could prevent Kyrie Irving from entering the pick ‘n’ roll with Tristan Thompson. Furthermore, they lacked a real presence on offence inside the paint. This isn’t a team that shoots outside the perimeter often, so their reliance on inside scoring requires a centre who can do it on both ends.

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The fans at Air Canada could do with seeing a dominant centre every other night

Unfortunately, there are very few centres that can dominate on both ends that are available. Certainly DeMarcus Cousins seems attainable but, since he seems closer to the Boston Celtics, it makes little sense to include him here.

There is, though, one centre who is most definitely attainable. While he may still be young, the potential is there to become one of the finest at the five spot. That player is the Philadelphia 76’ers Nerlens Noel.

The 22-year-old is up for trade now that the 76’ers are shopping for a point-guard. He is the unfortunate collateral damage of this search, since the franchise deems Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor to be more valuable assets.

But when Noel plays, he dominates on both ends. And he is a former Round 1 pick in the draft (2014).

Under the wing of the Raptors – an inside scoring and rim protecting team – he could come into his own.

This is a risk worth taking because it benefits the Raptors in the years to come. They may not be able to challenge the Cavs just yet but, if they can unite the right pieces, that could change in coming seasons.

Surprise Package: Memphis Grizzlies 

The Memphis Grizzlies were predicted to scrape the play-offs; a true bottom-of-the-barrel team. To say they have exceeded expectations is an understatement.

In just the last 20 games, Memphis have defeated the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. Oh, and the former they crushed twice.

Mike Conley, a point-guard of immense quality, has been in and out of the team with injury. In his absence, they were unbeaten. Upon his return, they continued to win games.

In veteran centre Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies have found a sharpshooting rim-protector. While that may sound like a preposterous hybrid, it is exactly what the Spaniard has become. He has hit game-winning 3-pointers and combined that with blocks and defensive plays aplenty.

As the focal point of their play, Gasol has carried Memphis to 6th in the West within a couple of games off 4th.

MVP at the Half: James Harden

Only one man seems worthy of the award as of this halfway mark. James Harden has dominated the NBA in recent months, breaking records and personal bests alike.

He carved out his highest points (51), assists (17) and rebounds (18) in a historic night against the New York Knicks on New Year’s Eve. He is the first player in NBA history to amass a triple-double of 15-15-15 or higher; he also leads the league in assists by a country mile.

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Harden playing some defence for Team USA

Why Harden instead of Russell Westbrook, some may ask? It’s simple. Westbrook is registering crazy numbers, too. But his team isn’t winning as often, or emphatically, as the Houston Rockets.

That plays a part in contention for the MVP award, particularly when The Beard’s team were ruled out of play-off contention by many punters.

Coach D’Antoni has placed immense belief and confidence in Harden – asking him to command the ball with more regularity and lead the team. This was something Harden had been criticised for in the past: leadership.

That, and defence. It would be an understatement to say he has quashed those criticisms this season.

Houston are winning and Harden is playing his heart out. If voting were to end today, the MVP of the 2016-17 season would be as clear as day.

Rookie of the Year at the Half: Joel Embiid

Joel Embiid is the first, and only, repeat appearance of this series. Yet that’s more of a mixed bag than a clear indication of Embiid’s annihilation of the award.

While the Cameroonian centre has undeniably been the best rookie so far, there is an argument to be made that nobody is actually challenging him.

Buddy Hield, for all his enthusiasm, has struggled to find consistency in New Orleans. Meanwhile Brandon Ingram looks far too meek for the NBA as of right now.

Perhaps Embiid’s dominance is, too, down to the fact that he is one of the oldest rookies in contention for the award. This, of course, is owed to his 26 month injury. But, on the flipside, for him to be playing at the level he is considering said injury is mind blowing.

He could genuinely get into the all-star team come February – he’s currently fifth in the West’s frontcourt voting (top 10 take part in the all-star game). The last rookie to achieve such a feat was Blake Griffin in 2011.

He’s also averaging 19 points and seven rebounds a night, despite a minutes restriction to prevent injury. 

Offensive Play of the Half: Larry Nance Jr. Dunk

This was the best dunk of 2016 – and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if it remained better than anything conjured up in 2017.

Larry Nance Jr. channelled his inner-Michael Jordon to throw it down on one of the better rim protectors in the league: Brook Lopez. A man four inches taller than the Lakers’ power-forward. 

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Defensive Play of the Half: Durant block to Curry 3

The best defensive plays either win you games or flip opposition possession into your own points.

Kevin Durant’s emphatic chasedown block, collected by Stephen Curry and dispatched for three, falls into the latter. And it’s a thing beauty.

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