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NBA Buzz: Top 3 teams in the East all in one division

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USA TODAY

NBA Buzz: Top 3 teams in the East all in one division

With NBA players reporting to training camps in two weeks, it's time to take a closer look at how the division races stack up. Last month, we broke down where the Bulls stand in the new look (no LeBron) Central Division.

Now, here's a closer look at the Atlantic, featuring the top three teams in the East, Boston, Toronto and Philadelphia.

1. Celtics- Outside of finding enough minutes to keep all his talented players happy and productive, Brad Stevens shouldn't have many problems over the six-month NBA grind. With the return of All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward from injury, Stevens will have to decide whether to start all his best offensive players in a smaller lineup or bring third-year swingman Jaylen Brown off the bench.

Irving will have the ball in his hands most of the time as the point guard, and it will be interesting to see if he's willing to sacrifice his own personal numbers to create shots for Hayward, Brown, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford. Remember, Irving forced his way out of Cleveland because he wanted to be "the man" on a new team instead of playing in LeBron's considerable shadow. Now, after watching Tatum emerge as one of the breakout stars in last year's playoffs, will Irving be willing to take a back seat to a second-year player with superstar potential?

Irving will be a free agent at season's end, so any potential chemistry issues could impact his decision on whether to sign with Boston long-term. But would he really abandon a second championship contender? When you add in bench players like Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris, Semi Ojeleye and Aron Baynes, the Celtics seem to have everything they need to make a run at the Finals this season.

2. Raptors- Toronto GM Masai Ujiri is going all-in on the 2018-19 season after trading All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan and back-up center Jakob Poeltl to San Antonio for disgruntled star Kawhi Leonard and veteran shooting guard Danny Green.

If Leonard is completely recovered from last season's mysterious quad injury and totally buys in to the Raptors' system under first-year coach Nick Nurse, he can be the best player in the Eastern Conference and give Toronto a real shot at beating Boston in a seven-game series. But if Leonard is already thinking about which team he's going to sign with as a free agent next summer, the whole team could crumble around him.

Remember, Toronto had the league's most productive second-unit a year ago, and they added veteran big man Greg Monroe to join returning reserves C.J. Miles, Pascal Siakam, Delon Wright and Fred Van Vleet. If Nurse can smoothly integrate the talents of Leonard and Green into a starting unit that also includes Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas, the Raptors are capable of winning around 55 games and making a run to the conference finals.

3. 76ers- You won't find many young duos better than Philly's Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. If those two players can stay healthy, they'll create nightmare match-ups for years to come, similar to what Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson did in L.A. during the 1980's. 76ers head coach Brett Brown will also welcome back veteran starters J.J. Redick, Dario Saric and Robert Covington, along with 2017 No. 1 overall draft pick Markelle Fultz, who reportedly has overcome the injuries and shooting slump that wrecked his rookie season.

The biggest question mark for Philly is replacing the shooting off the bench that was supplied by Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova last season. The 76ers traded for former DePaul star Wilson Chandler and drafted a pair of intriguing guards in Zhaire Smith and Landry Shamet, but a lack of reliable bench depth could hold this talented young team back if injury problems arise.

4. Nets- Head coach Kenny Atkinson was able to get this team to play hard last season even though they were overmatched talent-wise in just about every game. Not a whole lot has changed with the roster, other than the addition of role-playing vets like Kenneth Faried, Jared Dudley, Darrell Arthur and Shabazz Napier.

Now that Brooklyn has control of all its draft picks again, they'll look forward to adding a lottery pick next summer and also plan to create enough cap room to pursue two max-level free agents. There's been talk of Irving and former Bulls' star Jimmy Butler shopping for a team to bring them both in during 2019 free agency, and the Nets will be in prime position to get that done.

5. Knicks- With All-Star forward Kristaps Porzingis expected to miss most, if not all of the 2018-19 season, prospects for a turnaround season at Madison Square Garden are pretty bleak. The Knicks love what they saw from first round draft pick Kevin Knox during Summer League play, and second round big man Mitchell Robinson could wind up being the steal of the draft.

Still, it's hard to see new coach David Fizdale squeezing more than 30 wins out of this group unless some of the young guys emerge to help Tim Hardaway Jr. provide some consistent scoring.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

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NBA media members are having all kinds of fun with Tom Thibodeau trying to get the old Bulls' band back together in the Twin Cities. Luol Deng is the latest ex-Bull to sign on with the Timberwolves after negotiating a buyout with the Lakers on the four-year, $72 million contract he signed back in 2016.

Deng should be well-rested after playing in only one game last season, but it's kind of ironic he wound up in Minnesota considering many NBA analysts blame Thibodeau for shortening Deng's prime with the heavy minutes load he took on in Chicago.

Thibodeau has been trying to create the hard-working, defense first culture he had during his time with the Bulls, but bringing in past their prime veterans like Deng, Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson might only serve to alienate young stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Thibs is sitting on a powder-keg as coach and head of basketball operations with the Timberwolves, and if his experiment fails, the roster will probably be blown up next summer.

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Remember when the Bulls were rumored to be interested in trading for Utah swingman Rodney Hood last winter? Hood went to Cleveland instead, and hurt his value as a restricted free agent with a sub-par showing for the Eastern Conference champs.

So, after watching fellow restricted free agents Zach LaVine, Jabari Parker, Clint Capela and Marcus Smart all sign huge contracts, Hood had to settle for a one-year, $3.4 million deal with the Cavs and a chance to increase his value going into unrestricted free agency next summer. Hood is a talented scorer with 3-point shooting range, but it will be interesting to see if he gets enough shot attempts with so many Cavs' players looking to grab a bigger role in the offense now that LeBron is gone. Cleveland is one of several NBA teams with serious bust potential if team chemistry goes south.

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Basketball fans in Phoenix are hoping for better things from their rebuilding team after the addition of No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton and Villanova swingman Mikal Bridges in the draft. Ayton told reporters he will team up with star shooting guard Devin Booker to form the next Shaq & Kobe tandem, but now they won't have a training camp together to work on their timing.

Booker missed the end of last season because of an injury to his shooting hand, and when the hand swelled up again recently, team doctors decided he would need surgery. Now, Booker is expected to miss at least six weeks of action, which could put him out of the line-up for the start of the regular season. The 21-year old has emerged as one of the league's best long range shooters, averaging 24.9 points per game last season on 38% shooting from 3 point range.

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Finally, keep an eye on what happens with Chicago native Anthony Davis if the Pelicans get off to a slow start this season. Davis fired his agent recently, and is considering signing on with Lebron James' long-time friend Rich Paul. That’s even more interesting when you consider the Lakers have a number of young players they could use in a potential trade for one of the NBA's top 5 players. Would Paul work behind the scenes to try to convince Davis to force a trade to L.A. to team up with James?

Davis still has two seasons, plus an option year left on the contract he signed in New Orleans and he's consistently said he enjoys the city and playing for the franchise. But if we've learned anything about the NBA in the free agency era, it's that star players have been known to change their minds, and when that happens, the futures of several teams can be impacted in the process.

You can count on the Lakers, Celtics and 76ers stepping up with aggressive trade offers if Davis decides he needs to leave New Orleans to have a serious chance to win a championship. Question is, does the 25-year old big man have any interest in coming home, and if he does, would the Bulls have the right combination of assets to get a deal done?

Davis becoming available in a trade would instantly trump the talented free agent class of 2019 in terms of potential impact on contending teams.

Tributes to Kobe Bryant, city of Chicago highlight memorable All-Star Sunday

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USA Today

Tributes to Kobe Bryant, city of Chicago highlight memorable All-Star Sunday

The specter of Kobe Bryant was omnipresent throughout All-Star weekend. Too often, it felt that the city of Chicago was not. 

But both took center stage at the All-Star game itself on Sunday night. The result was poignant, powerful and downright enthralling.

Magic Johnson set the tone early with a eulogy to Bryant that elicited multiple, impassioned ‘Kobe!’ chants from the crowd. That gave way to South Side native Common seamlessly weaving a cadenced monologue dedicated to Chicago, Bryant and daughter Gigi, as images of city legends from Barack Obama to Michael Jordan to Hebru Brantley flashed across the screen. The United Center rippled with emotion from start to finish.

For Bryant, the homage was a culmination. For Chicago, it was an essential re-centering to cap a weekend that saw only one Bull participate in an event — Zach LaVine, who exited after round one of the 3-point shootout. After 32 years since last hosting, this city deserved its moment in the sun. That one delivered.

“Chicago held it down,” Anthony Davis said. “I think they showed the league and everyone around the world about our Chicago history, about the city. I think everyone enjoyed it and respects Chicago a little bit more.”

Of course, there was a game to play, too — and embedded within were moments of pure symbolism.

On the surface: Members of Team Giannis and Team LeBron donned No. 24 and No. 2, respectively, in honor of Bryant and Gigi. The final quarter of the game went untimed, a slog to 157 (24 points more than the 133 Team Giannis entered the period with, per the league’s new Elam-inspired format). 

Chicago charities — Chicago Scholars ($400,000) for Team LeBron, After School Matters ($100,000) for Giannis — also received a cumulative $500,000 over the course of the game. Seventy-nine assists between the two teams means $79,000 will go towards STEM research in the greater Chicago area, too.

But now, let’s get a little nebulous. 

That fourth quarter, after a familiarly lackluster previous three, was electric. The offenses were legitimately running plays, the defenses were scrapping. There was controversial officiating, sweat dripping, and charges and clutch blocks galore. By the end, you could cut the tension with a knife.

“It felt like playing in the league in a playoff game,” Davis said.

Forgive me this contrivance, but how fitting a finish to commemorate both this city and Bryant. A true grind-it-out, scratch-and-claw affair. And as epic a pickup run as you’re like to find.

Most poetic, then, was the winning bucket. Yes, it was a free-throw — an anticlimactic ending to a memorable night — but the man that took it, Davis, was both born and bred in Chicago, and currently reps the same purple and gold Bryant did for 20 seasons as a member of the Lakers. 

“It was a great feeling, to be back home,” Davis said. “And I’m happy I was able to be the one to knock down the free throw to seal the game.

“For our side to get a win, for Kob (Kobe), this whole weekend was honoring him. And I think the league did a great job of doing that.”

Davis went on to congratulate Kawhi Leonard, who tonight took home the first ever Kobe Bryant All-Star game MVP award. His 30 points led all scorers in the game.

“It’s very special,” Leonard said. “I had a relationship with him (Bryant). Words can’t explain how happy I am for it. Able to put that trophy in my room… And just to be able to see Kobe’s name on there. It just means a lot to me. He’s a big inspiration in my life. He did a lot for me.”

On Thursday, normalcy will return to the United Center in the form of the Bulls and Hornets. But this was a night no one will soon forget. Thank you, Chicago. Thank you, basketball.

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New All-Star game format brings competitiveness that does NBA, city of Chicago proud

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USA TODAY

New All-Star game format brings competitiveness that does NBA, city of Chicago proud

Team LeBron defeated Team Giannis 157-155.

Team LeBron’s charity, Chicago Scholars, won $400,000. Team Giannis’ charity, After School Matters, took home $100,000.

Kawhi Leonard won the first Kobe Bryant All-Star game MVP award.

Another winner? How about the sport of basketball, the NBA and critics of All-Star games everywhere?

Thanks to a new format that featured charities benefitting by whichever team won each quarter, plus the first usage of an Elam Ending, the United Center featured a fourth quarter whose intensity might make Michael Jordan smile.

Man, that was fun. They fixed the NBA All-Star game. It still seems surreal.

Anthony Davis sank the second of two free throws after Team Giannis coach Nick Nurse used a second coach’s challenge — and third of the fourth quarter overall — to finalize matters.

But not until — deep breath here — Giannis Antetokounmpo dived for a loose ball; Kyle Lowry took two charges; Antetokounmpo blocked Davis twice and LeBron James once at the rim; officials called back-to-back offensive fouls, one of which felt like a makeup call; and players argued with officials like the NBA Finals, or maybe playground bragging rights, were at stake.

“Throughout the whole fourth quarter and at the end of the game, everybody was like, ‘That was pretty damn fun,’” James said.

That it was.

In an interview with NBC Sports Chicago last month, NBA commissioner Adam Silver credited Chris Paul for bringing him the idea to incorporate the Elam ending, which establishes a target score rather than using a clock to discourage late-game fouling. Paul returned the compliment.

“The good thing about our league is we’re always adding new things and trying to figure out from our fans what they like,” Paul said.

Silver and the league introduced their own twist by making the target score 24 points more than the leading team after three quarters — a nod to Kobe Bryant’s number — and having the quarter-by-quarter charity winners.

Actually, nobody won the third quarter. It ended tied despite Nurse and Team LeBron coach Frank Vogel trading timeouts in the waning seconds to try to win the quarter.

“Every quarter from a coaching standpoint was really fun,” Nurse said.

Several players likened the ending intensity to that of a playoff game. How much did the Elam Ending benefit the ramp up in effort?

After three quarters of lob dunks, behind-the-back passes and uncontested 3-point shots that featured 55.5 percent shooting, the teams combined for 35.5 percent shooting in the fourth quarter.

“The end was amazing,” Nurse said. “Offensively, it was hard to get anything started. Even first passes were being denied. It felt like the end of a playoff game, which was really cool.”

Fans greeted it as such, standing down the stretch. What better way to honor Bryant’s legendary competitiveness than the way this one played out in the waning minutes?

That it was Davis who sank the winning free throw seemed a fitting end to honor the legacy of Chicago basketball that had been on display all week and then intensified with a beautiful pregame tribute to the city narrated by the rapper Common.

Davis, who attended Perspectives Charter High School, is the latest in a long line of stars this city has produced.

“Listen man, Chicago is right up there with one of the top cities in the world with producing some of the greatest basketball players to ever play this game,” James said. “You’ve even got Ben Wilson, who was on his way to being a star and obviously we know the story about that. So you got it all the way from grade school-era through high school through college and then so many pros and so many Hall of Famers.

“KG (Kevin Garnett) is about to go into the Hall of Fame soon. The great Isiah Thomas. DWade (Dwyane Wade) at some point will go into the Hall of Fame.”

That James cited Wilson, the late Simeon star gunned down on the eve of his senior season, showed the ultimate respect to this city’s rich heritage. A heritage that was honored by a competitive ending that would make anyone playing on playgrounds from Margate Park to Murray Park proud.

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