By Adam Spinella
Follow @Spinella14

Sleeping on Austin – Certain NBA players get a bad reputation early in their career and are never able to shake it. For whatever reason, that negative connotation has stuck to the name Austin Rivers. To a certain extent, it’s deserved — he never lived up to the incredible hype he had coming out of high school, plays for and seems protected by his father and isn’t a prototypical point guard.

There are a ton of great things that Rivers does, and they often go unnoticed when he’s compared to and forced to play behind Chris Paul. Since Paul went down, Rivers is averaging 17 points and four assists while shooting 37.5 percent from three and turning the rock over a minuscule 1.8 times per game. Austin has been good — nay, very good — without Paul for the Clippers. Replacing a future Hall of Famer and not being able to win at the same rate says more about CP3’s dominance than it does Rivers’ shortcomings.

Rivers is a good transition scorer, with underrated athleticism and a quick first step. He has a knack for flipping graceful scoop shots in after a Euro step towards the rim, a crafty finish that even agile defenders don’t know how to stop.

Defense is not a strength of Austin’s, and he and J.J. Redick form one of the more dastardly defensive duos in this league — especially in the backcourt. There’s only so much DeAndre Jordan can do to clean up after the driving lanes these guards give up. As much of a condemnation as that is against Rivers, there’s evidence that he’d be a stronger defender when paired up with a stronger backcourt mate. Opposing ball handlers and speedsters have an easy time with Rivers, who tends to hop and jump too easily at ball fakes or shoulder shimmies. If Rivers had the ability to guard more 2-men while controlling the ball on offense, the perception of him might be drastically different.

Tiers Separating in the East – Finally, it appears like there could be some separation among the cluster of teams vying for postseason position out in the Eastern Conference. With teams like Atlanta, Indiana and Washington all thriving over the past few weeks, there are six teams that appear like the true top six seeds (those three, Boston, Toronto and Cleveland).

Indiana won seven in a row dating from late January to now, with big wins over Oklahoma City and Houston at home. They’ve only lost four games since the calendar turned to 2017, but have a tough remaining schedule in February. Those Pacers are only four games back of the second seed in the East, elevating them above the six or seven teams jockeying for the final two playoff spots.

Atlanta seems to have found the consistency they’ve needed in the wake of the surprising Kyle Korver trade. Other than a defeat at the hands of red-hot Miami, the Hawks haven’t lost to a non-playoff team since Christmas, and haven’t lost two in a row since early December. Dennis Schroder and Tim Hardaway Jr. have been the keys to the turnaround, though Paul Millsap is still performing at an All-Star level.

No team has taken a bigger step forward recently than the Washington Wizards, as evident based on their overtime thriller with the Cavaliers on Monday. The starting rotation for the Wizards, since the start of the New Year, has been the best in the league statistically, finally gelling. Markieff Morris has become engaged on defense. Otto Porter is the league’s best three point shooter. John Wall and Bradley Beal look like one of the best backcourts in the league.

Anointing the Wizards as the second-best team in the East and the team poised to push the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals might be jumping the gun a bit. Washington still has issues: their bench is the worst in the league. In that loss to the Cavaliers, their five starters scored 119 of the team’s 135 points. The Wizards still have to get past Atlanta to secure home advantage in any round of the playoffs.

All this movement has created a unique effect out East, as a top six solidifies and the next tier crumbles a half-step behind. The race for the 2-seed is even more important. Despite the Cavaliers’ struggles, it’s hard to imagine them not sticking in that top spot. Any of the teams mentioned above, but in particular Toronto and Boston, should be fighting to secure one of those top two spots, delay a potential run-in with the Cavaliers and an easier first-round matchup. Whichever team comes out on top of that race will be the favorite to push Cleveland.

The Heat Stay Hot – Well, Miami is the hottest team in the league right now, and Okaro White is undefeated as an NBA player. 12-0. Wait, what? It’s hard to say what the recipe for their success has been — essentially just a really great few weeks from Dion Waiters and Goran Dragic. The Heat have shot an absurd 43.8 percent from three since their win streak began, by far the highest mark in the league. All that shooting has been key around, and because of, Goran Dragic.

Dragic should be easy to defend. He’s one of the most strong hand dominant guards in this league — when Dragic drives, it’s when he’s going left. If he goes right, he’s pulling up or passing. This type of predictability should be easy to guard. For some reason, it isn’t.

When Dragic goes left off ball screens, he does so with such pace and ferocity that defenses hardly process what happens before Goran has laid the ball in. Anticipation from big men and jumping out on Dragic might be the only way to slow the thrilling lefty. Lately, Dragic has been fantastic at anticipating hedges and drags them out a bit longer — still at nuclear-type speed — and forcing a switch for him to mismatch. Dragic was just toying with Karl-Anthony Towns against Minnesota, snaking him back to the middle and then giving him a deathly shoulder fake to create space for a jumper.

Goran has made himself a great long-range threat while playing off the ball, allowing his teammates to handle the rock while he sprints off screens and eyes the three point line. His choppy, sharp athleticism stems from the funky look of watching a lefty set themselves in what feels like reverse when seen at a high speed. Miami has other ball handlers and facilitators: Josh Richardson, Dion Waiters, even Justise Winslow for stretches. If Dragic can effectively play off the ball, perhaps these Heat can continue to win games through the rest of the year. This might be the most fun development in the league that everyone is writing off because, well, the Heat might want to bottom-out.

Miami’s Chilling Effect – Thursday marked the day when Chris Bosh’s contract was officially able to be removed from their books due to medical retirement and a one-year player absence dispensation. Miami is likely to wait until March 1st to officially remove Bosh for two reasons. First, if they remove him in March, he’s ineligible to sign with another team this season and be postseason eligible, which protects the Heat from having their exemption voided and paying Bosh the full remainder of his contract.

Second, it gives the Heat more time to act on the free agent market this summer as opposed to a desperate push at the deadline. You’re damn right, Miami is hot right now. This hot stretch won’t last forever, and Pat Riley knows well enough not to sell the long-term future of this franchise for a fleeting chase at a playoff spot and a collision with Cleveland this year. Ensuring Bosh doesn’t sign with another franchise this year doesn’t just protect owner Mickey Arison financially, but it reserves more space and maneuverability to improve the team in the long run.

The entirety of this situation leaves a furrowed brow and quizzical nature around one simple premise: if Bosh truly is “disabled” from playing in the league, what risk do the Heat have in releasing him right now? The Heat, if truly confident in their diagnosis of Bosh’s blood clot issues that they are in fact career ending, would also trust that 29 other NBA franchises would have the same findings. I can’t shake that notion, throughout the whole process, that there’s something more at play here. It’s quite the chilling effect.

Big Apple, Big Drama – Anybody else sick of the melodrama in New York?

… Get it?

The NBA’s most important market features a circus of players, front office figures and retired veterans that are turning the Knicks into the league’s largest soap opera. Watching Charles Oakley get ejected after a heated exchange with owner James Dolan, all while Zen Master Phil looked like he was trying everything possible to hide his panic, was a tough moment for basketball sentimentalists like myself. The collapse of the organization is coming from all angles.

At the end of the day, this is a results-driven league. In Jackson’s time in New York City, he’s hit one home run — Kristaps Porzingis. Trusting his overseas scouting department has given the Knicks, and Jackson, a few other prizes to rest their laurels on. Examining the roster development as a whole since Phil took over, it’s hard to say exactly what he’s done to move the roster in a positive direction. All the young pieces he initially acquired were moved to trade for Derrick Rose and clear space for Joakim Noah. Both moves look like failures.

Madison Square Garden and the Knicks franchise has a special type of allure, one that cannot be described until you step into that building during a big game. Unfortunately it feels like it will be a long time until a truly important game will take place in the Mecca.

Isn’t This A Violation?

Well, the real question is whether this bothers anybody other than myself? Perhaps I’m far too idealistic on the way referees should actually enforce the rules and players should set an example for younger kids as role models for how to play the game the right way within the rules. Small things like this really bother me when I watch the pro game sometimes. When it’s a close call, sure don’t call it. But something as clear as this? Yeesh.

The Caris LeVert Experience – The Nets are far and away the worst team in the league, but that doesn’t mean this season is lost. First year head coach is getting the team to play the desired style he wants his teams to replicate: space the floor, shoot threes, get up and down and share the ball from all spots. With those stylistic changes and desires, little victories emerge — players that the franchise know they want to keep around, or that fit into what they are working towards.

Rookie Caris LeVert is one of the brightest sparks for the Nets this season. At 6’8″ LeVert is very athletic, has a nice handle on the ball and can play a multitude of positions. The shooting numbers won’t blow anyone away, but what LeVert adds as a secondary or tertiary creator is what the Nets are looking at as a wing of the future. While other youngin’s like Isaiah Whitehead and struggled on offense as of late, LeVert is starting to pick up his steam.

Playing together with Sean Kilpatrick, LeVert gives the Nets an added dynamic of having multiple slashers on the floor that make defenses combust when they contract and expand multiple times a possession. LeVert has a killer crossover, especially in isolation situations or quick-hitting ball screens, that allow him to break down defenders and create space for himself.

LeVert isn’t a design-the-offense-around-you type of prospect. He lacks a mid-range game and is a bit slow right now as a rookie to make the right reads every time. LeVert is playing aggressively and stands out as one of the few solid rookies in a shallow rookie class. Brooklyn GM Sean Marks hit a solid mark with this pick. He and Kilpatrick make really strong wing playmakers within Atkinson’s system.

February Necessities – Charlotte just lost backup point guard Ramon Sessions for the season. Kemba Walker’s backup right now… Ray McCallum, who was in the D-League a week ago. If Charlotte wants to cling onto their playoff hopes, acquiring a new point guard is a necessity.

The same goes for Oklahoma City, who is struggling to score without Enes Kanter in the lineup. Since he broke his hand, the Thunder have gone 2-4 and are averaging 99 points per game. That rate would be 29th in the league if extrapolated over the course of a whole season. The Thunder need a scorer — and it doesn’t have to be a backup big man. Guys like Joffrey Lauvergne and Domantas Sabonis are playing well, while Jerami Grant could slide up to the power forward full-time. What Oklahoma City really needs is a wing that can shoot the three and play something resembling defense.

Portland is dealing with the injury bug as well, as Evan Turner will likely miss the next few weeks. Diagnosing just what they need to replace Turner with is a bit more complicated. Turner has been bad all season for Portland, just starting to turn a corner over the last week or so. Do the Blazers go after another facilitator off the bench? Do they look to bring in a defender that bolsters their entire group? What bigger moves might be in store for a crowded and underwhelming backcourt? Either way, some sort of move is a necessity — the roster doesn’t have enough quality depth or defensive identity with Turner out.

Required Reading – A Washington Post read on those Wizards and their struggling bench, Bryan Toporek wrote on the resurgence of Nerlens Noel, the Celtics could be in unique company this year — owning the top overall draft pick AND finishing first in their conference, Thon Maker is ready to take off, a great Hoops Hype feature on what it’s like to hear your name in trade rumors, a good look at Denver’s changing ball screen coverages, and a long feature on the changing landscape in Phoenix around Devin Booker.

Sets of the Weak

Cavs Reverse Elevator

I have never seen anything like this play in my entire life. It’s a reverse elevator. A de-elevator? A dropper? We’ll work on it…

Elevator plays are great sets for shooters to come cleanly through screeners and get daylight to take their shot. A reverse elevator, apparently, is built on the opposite concept: shooters set the double back screen for a slasher and close the doors. Kyle Korver and Channing Frye are the screeners, and their defenders stay attached to them. Watch Korver on the elbow opposite the ball: his man would normally give help on an elevator screen (which this looks like it could be for Kay Felder). Since Korver is such a dangerous shooter, his man wrestles with him at the elbow.

Jason Smith, guarding Frye, gives a little room to help on LeBron’s possible drive or post-up, but ends up allowing a pass through as Frye steps out to the three point line. Jefferson does a great job setting up his man on top of the play, then squeezing through a Korver back screen to get free for the layup.

Nuggets Punch Elevator

Here’s a unique elevator play that probably could’ve been called a three second violation. Two cross screens move the flow to the left side of the floor for a post-up. One cross screen gets the entry passer open, the second gets the ball into the post for the post-up. The play is not over there.

Malik Beasley sets that post cross screen, and he is the shooter this play is designed for. While the point guard clears to the opposite corner, Beasley sets his man up by putting him on his hip, then turns and darts through the elevator action. An elevator set on the wing like that while the ball is in the post is difficult to help on — it’s the natural instinct of the help defender closest to the ball to dig down on the post and pay no attention to the screen behind him.

Elevator Plays

Enjoy a fantastic breakdown of why elevator plays are so successful from BBALLBREAKDOWN contributor Mo Dakil. Mo does a good job talking through the different types of elevator actions (on the side, at the elbows, in out of bounds situations) and how they are all effective. No team runs it better than Golden State, so make sure you watch the speed and precision with which they run their elevator plays.

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