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Play-In Tournament explained, teams tanking & the first ever All-Most-Improved Team

Updated: May 22, 2021

Primarily, our weekly wrap-ups spotlight the breaking news events throughout the Association.

This time around, let’s dig deeper and address some teams and individuals who don’t regularly occupy the headlines.

First up on the docket: teams that will find themselves shooting for the stars in this summer’s NBA Draft.

Teams in the Tank

Minnesota Timberwolves

It’s easy to say this year hasn’t gone as planned for the Minnesota TimberWolves, but that begs the question: What exactly was the plan?

A spirited playoff run led by center Karl-Anthony Towns and his best bud guard D’Angelo Russell? That’s not the most bulletproof plan, to say the least.

In all seriousness, hats off to KAT for enduring a gut-wrenching 12 months. He’s persevered and showed why he is a one-of-one on several occasions this season, but not with enough consistency to drag a subpar roster to the playoffs.

Rookie Anthony Edwards is having a bizarre, yet very encouraging, rookie campaign.

For the month of March, Edwards averaged just over 24 points. While extremely impressive on surface level, he also averaged 21 shots per game, which qualified for fifth highest in the league. (Only bested by guards De’Aaron Fox, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard and Devin Booker)

Letting your star rookie do whatever he wants isn’t a winning formula. But for Ant and the Timberwolves, they at least get to see what he’s capable of, and it’s better than most 19-year-olds could dream of.

Unfortunately, the Timberwolves are digging themselves out of a hole almost everywhere else.

They were the first team to fire their head coach this year, never a good sign and his replacement, Chris Finch, hasn’t lit the building on fire either.

When they acquired Russell last year, who freshly signed a max contract, they hedged their bet by attaching this year’s first-round draft pick. If that pick is top-three, Minnesota keeps it and Golden State has their unprotected first-rounder in 2022.

However, given the new unpredictable lottery odds, any pick four or below will belong to the Warriors and their tanked season will be all for nothing.

This is a rare case where a bad team is cap-strapped and potentially without their first-round pick. In order to not squander KAT’s prime years, Minnesota will need an act of the basketball Gods.

Houston Rockets

Last week’s trade deadline wrap-up already emphasized Houston’s massive James Harden blunder, so we’ll spare them this time around.

Elsewhere with the rebuilding Rockets, there are a few bright spots. Forward Christian Wood being the brightest of all.

Before injuries slowed him down, Wood was having a near All-Star caliber breakout season.

The former Runnin’ Rebel is only 25, and is posting averages of 21 points and almost ten rebounds this year.

His injury and departure from the rotation in February sparked a 20-game losing streak, a terribly difficult card for rookie head coach Stephen Silas to be dealt.

The onus can’t fall on him, though. Beyond Wood, this roster has little, if anything, to be desired. G-League call-up Kevin Porter Jr. has emerged as the second best young piece on the team and that says it all.

On the bright side, they have 15 conditional first-round picks over the next three seasons.

If they manage to nail one of those picks, namely their own that could be top-three in this year’s draft (say forward Josh Green or guard Jalen Suggs), a template to build upon emerges.

Guard John Wall’s enormous salary will likely be bought out before it extends to the 2023-24 season as it is set to.

Guard Eric Gordon is owed a very tradable $18M next season as well.

Once those contracts are negotiated, Houston could have endless cap space in future free agencies. Problems are a-plenty for Houston right now, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

Detroit Pistons

Detroit basketball has been in the dumps for some years now, except for a first-round playoff exit in 2018.

This is a prime example of a team in need of a franchise player.

It’s not that Detroit doesn’t have several capable NBA players on their roster, their brand just lacks a true difference maker. And it has for some years now.

Ask yourself, besides center Andre Drummond who’s the most marquee Piston’s player of the last decade?

Forward Tobias Harris?

An aging forward Blake Griffin who was untradeable?

Guard Reggie Jackson?!?

Here’s every first-round draft pick for Detroit since 2010: center Greg Monroe, guard Brandon Knight, Drummond, guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, forward Stanley Johnson, forwardHenry Ellenson, guard Luke Kennard, forward Sekou Doumbouya and guard Killian Hayes.

The one caveat being, the highest of those selections are two seventh overall picks and three eighth overall picks. The middle of the lottery is boom-or-bust territory because the sure talents are taken earlier on.

Point being, with their first-round pick this year in possession, Detroit badly needs to capitalize on a potential high-lottery pick.

They’re not a free-agent destination and while their trade acquisitions admirably keep them around, history suggests that won’t push the needle for them.

Forward Jerami Grant signed last offseason for a modest $20M per year deal and his play so far has exceeded that price point, with their young players also flashing high-end potential.

They added a resurgent Josh Jackson. Forward Saddiq Bey will likely garner an all-rookie selection.

Center Isaiah Stewart can hold his own with any body type in the league and Hayes was their prize selection just last year. His pass-first, defensive skill set accentuates everything they have.

A big-time rookie addition can give a tremendous boost to a franchise that hangs its hat on toughness.

For the record, Detroit hasn’t had the first overall pick in 50 years… (knocks on wood) You never know.

Play-in Tournament Format

One reason there aren’t more teams outright in the tank is because they’re playoff hopes are still alive thanks to the play-in tournament.

The last two seeds in each conference will be up for grabs between eight teams total this year. Here’s how those games will play out.

The seven and eight seeds in each conference will play each other, with the winner securing the higher seed. If your team is in this range it’s simple, win once and you’re in.

The nine and ten seeds will also play each other to see who can keep their postseason hopes alive. The loser will be eliminated from contention.

The loser of the seven/eight matchup will play the winner of the nine/ten game for rights to the eighth and final spot in the playoffs.

This new wrinkle has several side effects.

Fewer teams are tanking as a result and instead giving it their best shot because they could get a lucky break. There’s also less blatant jockeying for a favorable position because the bottom of the brackets are open-ended.

The shortened season has created ample stress already and the play-in tournament adds to that for fringe playoff squads.

As for the viewers, May 18-21 are sure to provide some can’t-miss moments.

The All-Most-Improved Team

Ending on a positive note, here is a list of players all worthy of most improved player nods. But, instead of a ranking, let’s fill out a traditional one through five, like the All-NBA and All-Defensive teams.

Point Guard – De’Aaron Fox

Close considerations for guards Dejounte Murray and Collin Sexton, but Fox has both of them beat this year thanks in large part to a huge stretch over the past month.

While little around him is stable in Sacramento, Fox has ascended into the borderline first-tier of point guards in the NBA.

In his fourth season, Fox has taken control of his lightning speed and paired it with a reliable pull-up jumper to become a menace for opposing defenses.

Averaging a career-best 25.2 points per game, Fox has reached a level as a scorer few believed to be attainable for him. Not to mention his distributions haven’t missed a beat, averaging seven assists for the second season in a row.

Shooting Guard – Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Gilgeous-Alexander effectively burst onto the scene last season as guard Chris Paul’s Robin during an improbable playoff run.

This will be the first year that he won’t be in the postseason in his young career, but not because of his lack of performance.

In an increased role on a Oklahoma City Thunder squad that many scoffed at, SGA has shown us he has elite potential to be the number one guy on a contender one day.

Averaging a minute less than last season, Gilgeous-Alexander increased his scoring from 19 to 23.7 points per game, and his playmaking which went from 3.3 assists to almost a shade under six.

Surprisingly, the Thunder’s unproven squad was highly competitive in games that the third-year guard played and he was their clear-cut leader.

If his season is finished, the league has already taken notice that he is the real deal.

Small Forward – Jerami Grant

Building off a playoff run that showed he was crucial to Denver’s success, Grant embraced the opportunity to become a lead guy on a lesser team and his gamble is paying off great.

He’s shattered his former career-best scoring average of 13 by posting 22.6 points per game this year for the Pistons.

Perceived to be a high-end three-and-D guy at best, Grant has proven he’s capable of more when given the opportunity. Along with his increased usage, he’s also become a better distributor at almost three assists per game.

He gets more looks in Detroit than he would on almost any other team, but he’s also top-15 in free throws made per game indicative of the fact he doesn’t settle for bad shots.

Power Forward – Julius Randle

The prohibitive favorite to win the actual award, Julius Randle is reaching the apex of his trajectory.

We knew the Kentucky big man could bang down low, but also put the ball on the floor and create. We did not know that he would be able to put all of his tools together for such a dominant season, however.

Randle, once a guy defenders just forced to his off-hand, has evolved into a point forward for the New York Knicks. At times he’s looked, dare I say, unstoppable.

Averaging 23 points, 10.6 rebounds, six assists, 40% on threes and 80% from the line, Randle is putting up career-highs literally across the board. His leadership has hoisted the Knicks into a near-lock for the playoffs, a place they haven’t been since 2013.

Center – Nikola Jokic

Sorry, I know we’ve mentioned the Joker several times throughout the season, but looking back on his averages from last year, it’d be a crime not to give him this spot.

Turning an already impressive 19, nine and seven last year into a mind-boggling 26 points, 10.9 rebounds and 8.8 assists is just unheard of.

His percentages as a big man are unreal unless your last name is Nowitzki, 56/41/85, and he’s the second-best clutch performer in the league. He also hasn’t missed a single game.

When you do things such as join center Wilt Chamberlain as the only centers EVER to post 50 career triple-doubles, you’re deserving of certain accolades.

Honorable mentions again to Christian Wood and Toronto’s Chris Boucher.

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