NBA Offseason Grades: Pacific Division

gs warriors champs

Welcome to the final part of my 6 part series of NBA Offseason Grades! If you’ve been keeping up with series, I thank you for lending me your time and patience. If you’re just joining us now, well, better late than never!

For the newbies:

I’ve taken it upon myself to evaluate each team’s offseason transactions. I’ve given each team a letter grade based on whether or not I thought they made good moves considering their respective situations. This includes the draft, resigning period, free agency, trades, firings/hirings, and anything else I deem important. Most importantly, I answer the one pivotal question: Are they better?

I’ve unintentionally saved the most entertaining division for last, as today we discuss the Pacific Division. This division has given us so much in regards to entertainment value since June. We’ve seen a team make NBA history, free agency masquerading as a romantic comedy, the fall of an empire, and Vivek Ranadivé doing Vivek Ranadivé things!

This was awesome!

If you missed it:

Atlantic Division Grades

Southeast Division Grades

Central Division Grades

Northwest Division Grades

Southwest Division Grades

Key: 

  • (R): Rookie
  • (DnS): Draft-n-Stash – players drafted, but playing overseas next year
  • (D): Draft-n-Stash player joining the team
  • Bolded Names: Particularly notable players

And we start with our reigning Pacific Division/NBA Champions:

Golden State Warriors: A+

Re-signed: Leondro Barbosa, Draymond Green

Lost: Justin Holiday, Ognjen Kuzmic, David Lee

Acquired: Chris Babb, Jason Thompson, Gerald Wallace

Drafted: Kevon Looney

Other notable moves: N/A

What did they even do?

Exactly.

The disease of more* runs rampant through championship teams across all sports; and the presence of a salary cap keeps this concept a reality. Winning a championship was great, but the iron is hot. And once the team actually climbs the mountain, self goals often take over for team goals. Players want more money, more playing time, more recognition, a bigger role, etc. And so we see key cogs end up taking huge contracts from other teams and then they disappear, with their new money, into irrelevance; all while their former team struggles to defend their title.

*NOTE: “The disease of more” was coined by Don Pat Riley in his book “Showtime.”

Golden State’s team management were able to avoid the disease of more; at least during this offseason.

Of the 5 team free agents that Golden State needed to make a decision on, only 2 were regular rotation guys. Draymond Green may have gotten a huge raise (5-years/$82 million), but his value to the Warriors is actually fairly represented by his max contract; therefore, is exempt from this rule. And Leandro Barbosa (1-year/$2.5 million) is coming back on a very team-friendly deal.

The David Lee salary dump was a way for Golden State management to save money on the luxury tax. Lee is a solid player, but he really didn’t fit in Steve Kerr’s system anyway. He only played 904 minutes in 49 regular season games in 2014-15 (both career lows), and really only had a cup of coffee in the NBA Finals. Lee may be a good guy to have in your foxhole, but the Warriors certainly don’t need him to defend their title.

(Image from USA Today) Yup, the Warriors are bringing back everyone [who matters].

The drafting of Kevon Looney with the 30th pick sparked a little debate due to the prospect’s health issues (he had offseason hip surgery). This doesn’t worry the Warriors, though. They’re super deep and Looney is likely to ride the pine his rookie season anyway. However, he was expected to be a lottery pick before the report of his surgery surfaced the day of the draft. This makes Looney one of those low-risk/high-reward draft picks. And considering the personnel that the Warriors are boasting next season, they’ll have time to wait on Looney.

So management did their part in avoiding the disease of more. The Warriors will be bringing back just about everyone who mattered on an NBA championship team that boasted one of the 4 best regular seasons of all time. Golden State was right not to tinker with the roster. In this case, less is more. And now we’ll wait and see if Steve Kerr can keep the disease of more at bay during the regular season.

The Warriors may not have gotten better from a personnel standpoint; but they’re still a super deep team with championship experience and arguably the hardest home court for opponents to play on. The Spurs may have won the offseason, but the Warriors are still the champions. And like the Nature Boy Ric Flair once said, “To be the man, you gotta beat the man.”

Are they better?: No (But dammit they’re still good).

Los Angeles Clippers:  F-   A

Re-signed: DeAndre Jordan, Austin Rivers

Lost: Matt Barnes, Glenn Davis, Jordan Hamilton, Spencer Hawes, Lester Hudson, Dahntay Jones, Hedo Turkoglu, Ekpe Udoh

Acquired: Cole Aldrich, Branden Dawson (R), Chuck Hayes, Wesley Johnson, Paul Pierce, Pablo Prigioni, Josh Smith, Lance Stephenson

Drafted: N/A

Other notable moves: N/A

DeAndre Jordan was rumored to want a larger role than one he was receiving with the Clippers. Perhaps to finally have an offense built around him. ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz reported that DJ also grew tiresome of his relationship with Chris Paul , saying:

He [DJ] was tired of Paul’s constant barking and petty gestures, like distributing high-fives to the three other guys on the floor following a timeout but somehow freezing out Jordan.

And so on July 3rd, DJ agreed (in principle) to sign a 4-year/$80 million deal with the Dallas Mavericks.

A few days later in an interview with Bleacher Report Radio , JJ Redick gave the Los Angeles Clippers his own grade on how they handled their offseason to that point. Keep in mind JJ Redick is still under contract with the Clippers for 2 more years…

Is there an F-minus?

Listen, we had one priority this summer and that was to re-sign DJ and we missed out on that, so barring some miracle, [the] makeup of our team is completely different now. He’s such an integral part of what we did, not just defensively but offensively with his screening, his rolling, his offensive rebounds. His presence down low essentially made teams either commit to the three-point line when Blake [Griffin] or Chris [Paul] penetrated or commit to him, and that either opened up lobs for him or threes for guys like me and Jamal [Crawford] and Matt [Barnes].

So he was a huge part of what we did and missing out and having him leave for Dallas gives us a failing grade.

Yes JJ, I make up the rules for this article, so there is such thing as an ‘F-.’

But on the last day of the free agent moratorium, team owner Steve Balmer, Head Coach Doc Rivers, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, JJ Redick, and Paul Pierce organized a special ops mission to bring DJ back to the Clippers on a long-term deal. They literally infiltrated his house in Houston, Texas, with the intent of locking DJ inside his house until he agreed to sign a contract. They hashed out their differences, and then they played cards until midnight when DJ was able to officially sign a 4-year/$87 million deal to stay in Los Angeles.

It was an emojional day…

with a few laughs…

and some hurt feelings.

It was the most entertaining offseason day in NBA history.

Getting DJ back puts the Clips in good standing grade-wise. I roasted the Mavericks for even trying to sign DJ; so why would I applaud the Clips for going to such lengths to woo their center back?

It’s simple, the Clippers needed DJ to stay.

DJ is actually a perfect fit with the Clippers, his overpaid price tag be damned. He’s the third best player on a contender (ideal role), CP3 and Blake Griffin are running the offense and are very good passers, DJ is the best pick-and-roll finisher in the NBA, and he anchors the defense.

Obviously I was alluding to the fact that I don’t think he’s worth the $21 million+ per year, but it’s not like the Clippers could parlay that money into other players. The Clippers were already over the salary cap before the DJ contract, and the only reason they could pay him big money in the first place was because they owned his Bird Rights. If they lost DJ, they’re not getting anyone else who can replicate what he does for this team; at least not in free agency.

Last post-season the Clippers beat the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs in a 7-game first round series, and were 1 win away from making it to the WCF. Their starting point guard/league’s best point guard turned 30 in May and is entering year 11 of his career (history suggests he will begin to drop off this year or next), and Blake Griffin is just entering his prime. It’s simple, the Clippers are in win-now mode, and the way they went after DJ during the moratorium confirms that notion. DJ walks, and the Clippers are wasting next season.

The Clippers’ Achilles heal in the playoffs last year was their lack of depth. As I mentioned earlier they didn’t have much in the way of cap room, either. General Manager Doc Rivers turned chicken crap into a half-way decent chicken salad by acquiring depth through means of trades, trade exceptions, and minimum contracts.

They traded Matt Barnes and Spencer Hawes to the Charlotte Hornets for the notorious headache that is Lance Stephenson. Stephenson was a triple-double machine 2 years ago in Indiana, but played his way out of the starting line-up in Charlotte via his 38-17-63 shooting splits and just all around bad attitude. I don’t love the risk of bringing in Lance just because of his tendency to rub people the wrong way; but he’s coming into a situation where there’s strong leadership in both the locker room and organization, and he stands a better chance of being kept in check. I can justify the risk given these circumstances. Good move.

The Clippers will miss Matt Barnes’ toughness, his ability to defend multiple positions, and his ability to hit the 3; but the Clips were able to replace Barnes when they signed Paul Pierce to a 3-year/$10 million deal via the tax-payer’s mid-level exception. Pierce brings the same package to the table as Barnes did, plus a proven leadership presence. Pierce is also a native of Los Angeles and won a championship with Coach Rivers in Boston in 2008, so there’s also a little bit of a full circle narrative in relation to this signing. But hey, Pierce is a guy you want in your foxhole.

Doc also managed to pry Josh Smith away from a Western Conference rival despite only being able to offer a minimum contract. Smith is an 11 year veteran who showed a lot of value coming off the bench for the Rockets in the second half of last season; which instantly makes him an upgrade over the 87 year old Hedo Turkoglu. And I imagine the 14 4th quarter points that Smith threw down against the Clips in game 6 to save the Rockets’ season had a little something to do with this signing, as well. But that’s none of my business.

And the Clips also managed to bring in Cole Aldrich, Chuck Hayes, Wesley Johnson, and Pablo Prigioni to beef up the end of their bench. Solid role players at good prices.

Seems like Doc is getting better at this Coach/GM thing.

Are they better?: Yes.

Phoenix Suns: C-

Re-signed: Brandon Knight 

Lost: Earl Barron, Reggie Bullock, Gerald Green, Andrew Harrison (R), Jerel McNeal, Marcus Morris, Marcus Thornton, Brandan Wright

Acquired: Tyson Chandler, Jon Leuer, Ronnie Price, Mirza Teletovic, Sonny Weems

Drafted: Devin Booker

Other notable moves: N/A

I haven’t had a good grip on the Phoenix Suns’ game plan ever since they traded for Isaiah Thomas in 2014 when they already boasted a Goran Dragic/Eric Bledsoe back court; then essentially traded Dragic, Thomas, the Lakers’ top-5 (now top-3) protected first round pick + spare parts for Brandon Knight.

I can’t base this summer’s Suns grade on what happened in past years, but its worth noting I have no idea what’s going on in Phoenix.

Anyway…

The Suns kicked off free agency by signing Brandon Knight to a 5-year/$70 million deal. I personally like Brandon Knight as an all around player, and I think he gets unfairly lambasted based solely on the amount of times he’s landed on the wrong side of a YouTube clip . But he’s a versatile combo guard who does a lot of things well. For some reason his stats dropped after the trade to Phoenix. Granted the sample size was small (11 games in Phoenix compared to 52 in Milwaukee), so it is possible he may have struggled adjusting to a new system on the fly.

(Image from USA Today) With Phoenix committing to Brandon Knight long-term, could Eric Bledsoe be the next Sun to go?

That being said, the Suns went about this all wrong.

Knight was a restricted free agent and the Suns came in with a massive deal in hand without letting the market decide his value. That’s a big no-no when it comes to restricted free agency, unless the player’s name is Kawhi Leonard or Anthony Davis of course.

They would have been better off letting him find a deal in free agency and just matching it. Sure, they may have ended up overpaying him to stick around anyway, but it beats overpaying the guy when the only team you’re competing against is yourself.

The Suns also brought in Tyson Chandler on a 4-year/$52 million contract. He’s obviously being brought in to anchor the defense and serve as a positive veteran leader with championship pedigree; which is good. I imagine Dallas would bring him back if they had a mulligan on free agency. The drawback is that Chandler turns 33 in October, has 14 seasons under his belt, and has had trouble staying healthy his whole career. It’s an alright pick-up at a fairly steep price. I can’t imagine that contract ages well, either.

The Suns also traded Marcus Morris (the lesser twin), and let Brandan Wright and Gerald Green walk in free agency. Mirza Teletovic is a nice pick-up as a floor spacer on the cheap; but other than him, the Suns brought in a cast of role players to fill in the blanks.

I liked the decision to draft Devin Booker at number 13. Booker was arguably the best shooter in his draft class, and should develop nicely in Phoenix’s pace-and-space system.

It’s obvious LaMarcus Aldridge was the apple of Phoenix’s eye this offseason. But LMA chose the San Antonio Spurs, and it appears the Suns didn’t have a contingency plan in case that scenario occurred. So now they find themselves in a situation with no star player and no real direction to go in next season.

The Suns went 39-43 last season (10-17 post trade deadline). Given whom they let walk and whom they brought in, I can’t say that the Suns are better than where they were April 15th. Jeff Hornacek is an under-rated coach who’s been really good at bringing out the best in his players; but even he has his work cut out for him this year in the loaded Western Conference.

I don’t really know where the Suns go from here; but it’s certainly not up.

Are they better?: No.

Sacramento Kings: F

Re-signed:  Omri Casspi

Lost: Reggie Evans, Ryan Hollins, Carl Landry, Ray McCallum, Andre Miller, Eric Moreland, Nik Stauskas, Jason Thompson, Derrick Williams

Acquired: Quincy Acy, James Anderson, Marco Belinelli, Caron Butler, Seth Curry, Duje Dukan (R), Kosta Koufos, Rajon Rondo

Drafted: Willie Cauley-Stein

Other notable moves: N/A

Congratulations, Sacramento Kings! You just took the Most Dysfunctional Organization in the NBA title belt away from the New York Knicks!

Where do I even start?

How about allowing your 3rd head coach in 1 calendar year the opportunity to alienate your franchise center? Then let said head coach keep his job after he publicly looked to trade said franchise center? Yes, DeMarcus Cousins has 3 years left on one of the best bargain contracts in the league; but there’s no chance in Hell he’s sticking around Sac-Town after the 2018 season.

Or how about paying the Philadelphia 76ers a package of Nik Stauskas (2014 – Round 1, Pick 8), a future 1st round pick, and the right to swap picks in 2 future drafts just to take on Jason Thompson, Carl Landry, and their combined $26 million+ salaries over the next 2-3 seasons?

Yes, this trade actually happened.

Forget the fact that they could have used the stretch provision to buy out Carl Landry. Why wouldn’t they just offer this trade to Denver for the right to Ty Lawson? After all, Denver basically ended giving away Lawson to the Houston Rockets following his 2nd DUI of the past year. This would have ultimately been a win-win for both the Kings and the Nuggets had it come to fruition. Instead, Denver dumped Lawson for spare parts and a late first round pick, the Rockets solidified their spot as a contender, the 76ers (briefly) looked like the smartest team in the room, and the Kings ended up tossing their future draft picks away and overpaying for a point guard who’s best years were left behind in 2013.

Speaking of which…

Go ahead and add a 1-year/$10 million contract for Rajon Rondo to Sacramento’s dumpster fire. In case you missed it, last season the Mavericks bet the farm on a Rondo resurgence in the hopes that he would be the missing link to a championship team. Instead, Rondo butt heads with Head Coach Rick Carlisle and played his way out of the rotation in the playoffs. Rondo threw away any leverage he had in a big money contract in free agency, and then the Kings gave him a $10 million deal when no one else even wanted him.

Yes, Boogie Cousins and Rondo will play for a team coached by George Karl. This instantly makes the Kings a must-watch NBA League Pass team. Not for the games themselves; rather for the comedy. Boogie, Rondo, and Karl could end up choking each other out on any given night! No seriously, its going to be Survivor: Sacramento Kings in 2015-16.

A couple other moves I’m not a huge fan of:
1.) Kosta Koufos – 4-years/$33 million. Bleh.
2.) Drafting Willie Cauley-Stein with the 6th overall pick; passing on Emmanuel Mudiay (7), Stanley Johnson (8), and Justise Winslow (10). I love WCS as a prospect; but the last thing the Kings needed was another center. There were better options at number 6, even if they planned on trading Boogie.

I’ll close with this. Pardon me while I borrow/touch-up a quote from Billy Madison that I think correctly reflects the Sacramento Kings’ offseason:

[Sacramento Kings], what you’ve just [done this offseason] is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever [seen]. At no point in your [embarrassing], [franchise debilitating moves] were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational [plan]. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having [witnessed] it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

Original Version!

Are they better?: No.

Los Angeles Lakers: D

Re-signed: N/A

Lost: Vander Blue, Carlos Boozer, Ed Davis, Wayne Ellington, Jordan Hill, Wesley Johnson, Jeremy Lin, Ronnie Price

Acquired: Brandon Bass, Michael Frazier (R), Jonathan Holmes (R), Roy Hibbert, Lou Williams

Drafted: D’Angelo Russell, Larry Nance, Jr., Anthony Brown,

Other notable moves: N/A

This summer we witnessed the end of an era. Sure, the Lakers haven’t won a championship since 2010, and they last made the playoffs in 2013. But I’m not talking about wins and losses. Down years happen to just about every franchise, and the presence of a salary cap has made it especially difficult to maintain dominance over consecutive years.

Instead, I’m referencing the aura and the mystique that once upon a time surrounded the Lakers franchise. 16 championships, a big market, an LA lifestyle, establishing a legacy; what star player wouldn’t be drawn to these elements? Especially if the money was equal.

After all, good things would just happen to the Lakers throughout NBA history. Stars like Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Shaquille O’Neal would just fall onto their laps.

But not this time. There was no LaMarcus Aldridge; nor Greg Monroe. Instead their was Brandon Bass and Roy Hibbert.

It’s not just failing to get a star, it’s why they didn’t get a star. Aldridge sat down with the Lakers twice, where they pitched branding, young pieces, and the opportunity to play with Kobe Bryant; but LMA was turned off by LA’s old-fashioned style of play. And he had no interest in being the Pau Gasol to his Kobe Bryant.

Meanwhile Greg Monroe turned down both the Lakers and the Knicks to play for the small-market Milwaukee Bucks because he believed they had the best chance of winning.

It was a bigger loss for the Lakers than it was for the Knicks. The Knicks have sucked for the better part of the last 15 years, and have swung-and-missed on a number of premier free agents. The Lakers aren’t used to this. This uncharted waters.

This summer was one of the last chances for the Lakers to extend Kobe’s career by adding another star, and yet it ended horribly.

I mean, the sum of the parts gained is actually fairly better than the parts lost. Brandon Bass cancels out the loss of Ed Davis, but Roy Hibbert finally gives the Lakers a rim protector. Reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams is a good pick-up assuming the Lakers keep him in that role and not try to shoe-horn him into the starting line-up with Kobe.

I also LOVE D’Angelo Russell as a prospect. But even D’Angelo drew the ire of Lakers Nation when he had the cajones to call Tracy McGrady the GOAT when one Kobe Bryant is on his team. Take a lap, young fella.

The Los Angeles Lakers now find themselves (temporarirly) stripped of their competitive advantages. Now they are forced to rebuild the old fashioned way like the rest of the teams in NBA: through draft picks and smart business decisions. Truth be told, it’s not the worst way to rebuild in this league. But this was not the gameplan GM Mitch Kupchak drew up. So this is going to cost them.

Are they better?: Yes.


 

 

6 divisions and 30 NBA teams later, and we’ve have completed the NBA Offseason Grades series! I’ll revisit these grades somewhere around the all-star break just to see where each team stands and see how accurate each representation was. Only 7 more weeks until opening night!

Thank you very much to basketball-reference.com , espn.go.com/nba , and hoopshype.com for the stats and information used in this article.

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From the Rockets to the Clippers, the West Not So Invincible Anymore

With a month in the books, the NBA has already provided more than a few surprises this early in the season. One of the most interesting developments that not many could’ve foreseen was the Eastern Conference making quite the improvement while the Western Conference heads in the opposite direction.

Though the Western Conference still has three of the best teams in the NBA, the West is definitely not quite as strong as most expected it to be when the season began. Despite the Warriors proving their championship was certainly no fluke with an undefeated record that’ll probably be held intact when Golden State meets the Cavs and the Spurs still the Spurs, the other teams in last year’s playoffs aren’t faring quite as well.

The Pelicans are still struggling to get back to the team they were last year with a 4-11 record while the Rockets and Clippers are proving sometimes adding a bunch of stars doesn’t always translate into a bunch of wins.

Houston We Have a Problem

After starting the season 0-4, the Rockets certainly didn’t seem like the same team that went to the Western Conference Finals last year. It seemed though after a win against the talented OKC Thunder, Harden and the Rockets might have overcome their slow start. Unfortunately though, it was a short lived celebration as the Rockets went on to lose three more consecutive games which eventually lead to the firing of Coach McHale.

Though Coach McHale obviously wasn’t the answer in Houston, the team’s struggles lie way beyond the coach. Until James Harden and company learn to play defense individually and as a team, not much will change with this team. Also might help if a certain star or two learned how to keep their egos in check. When you commit as many turnovers as the Rockets do and lose as badly as a result, no one should feel they deserved to be MVP.

So other than the players changing their personalities, finding the right coach to help in that process should be the Rockets main priority right now. Wonder what Rudy Tomjanovich is up to these days.

Trouble in the City of Angels

Like the Rockets, the Los Angeles Clippers haven’t quite lived up to the expectations placed on them after a successful offseason. With so many big new additions, the Clippers undoubtedly never thought they’d have a losing record, especially not after they kept Deandre Jordan from going to Dallas.

And therein lies the biggest irony of all for the Clippers. The fact that the Dallas Mavericks have actually fared better so far in the season even though they didn’t get Deandre Jordan. Seems so far losing out on him might have been a blessing in disguise for the Mavs.

But though the Clippers might currently be struggling, they still have what many consider to be one of the NBA’s better coaches. So if anyone can manage the dysfunction that currently plagues the Clippers, it’d probably be Doc Rivers. That plus, it could always be worse, they could be that other team from LA, the Los Angeles Lakers.

 

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Is All Forgiven With DeAndre Jordan?

DeAndre Jordan played like he had something to prove last night. How could anyone forget the fiasco during free agency? One day he was with the Los Angeles Clippers, the next day he agreed to become a part of the Dallas Mavericks and in the end he decided to stay in Los Angeles.

The Clippers are now 2-0 as they beat the Dallas Mavericks at home 104-88. Jordan played for 26 minutes and finished with 15 rebounds. He only scored six points but he still had an impact on the game.

There were times when it seemed like some of the Mavericks players were testing Jordan. At one point Jordan and Dallas’ Dirk Notwitzki were going back and forth with one another. Their little situation resulted in three technical fouls.

Was that some type of payback?

With the start of the NBA season that also means the start of Hack-A-Jordan. It was almost as if the Mavericks were desperate and at times they barely let Jordan walk up the court before he was fouled.

I wasn’t expecting Jordan to hit every shot from the free throw line, but it would’ve been nice to see him hit most of them. It’s only the first home game so I won’t hold it against him.

Maybe all is well in Clippers land and fans forgive him for his attempt to move on from the team. Even Jordan acknowledged how if he could go back he would’ve gone about it differently.

When the Clippers play the Mavericks on their home court on November 11, there will be a different atmosphere. The loud boos from the crowd will knock the roof off the American Airlines Center.

Mavericks’ owner, Mark Cuban still hasn’t forgot about how Jordan handled himself. Without naming him specifically Cuban had some strong words.

“You can change the players, you can change the owner, but the Clippers are who they’ve been for the last 30 years,” Cuban said to the media before the start of the game.

It’s ok to change your mind because we’re human we all do it. Just make sure you tell someone about it.

Apparently Jordan didn’t bother mentioning anything to the guy that was going to pay him $80 million over four years. I don’t see Dallas being as nice and welcoming Jordan anytime soon.

Overall the Clippers looked good on the court and led the entire game against the Dallas Mavericks. This seemed like an easy win thanks to Blake Griffin who finished with 26 points, 10 rebounds and 2 assists.

The Clippers shared the ball when they needed to and seemed to have played with a chip on their shoulder. Remember, it was just last year when they blew a 3-1 lead against the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference semifinals.

The Clippers have so much potential; they still have Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Adding Lance Stephenson and Paul Pierce and a few ex-Rockets players such as Josh Smith and Pablo Prigioni may finally get them to the NBA Finals.

First, they’ll have to get through the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and the Houston Rockets, once again.

After all that’s happened, the Clippers and Mavericks may be the new rivalry in the Western Conference.

 

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2015-2016 NBA Season’s Most Intriguing Games

With the 2015-2016 NBA season tipping off next month (preseason begins early October with the regular season beginning October 27th), it is never too soon to start talking big games. With so much change and drama happening over the summer, this upcoming season promises to be one of the more intriguing seasons yet. Here are just a few of the must watch games of the upcoming season.

Los Angeles Clippers @ Dallas Mavericks 

Unless you were living under a rock this past summer, you know one of the biggest headlines to come out of the offseason was Deandre Jordan’s last minute decision to stick with the Los Angeles Clippers instead of agreeing to sign with the Dallas Mavericks, the team he had, in college recruiting terms, verbally committed to previously. Given the drama that arose from the apparent change of heart, which included Deandre Jordan apparently ignoring Mark Cuban’s calls, there really is little doubt Deandre Jordan will have quite the “homecoming” when the Clippers come to Dallas on November 11th. I expect the fans will not soon forget how Deandre spurned the Mavericks and the city of Dallas.

Deandre Jordan not listening

Photo by USA Today

A preview of Deandre Jordan playing at American Airlines Center on November 11th?

San Antonio Spurs vs …… pick your team

The 5-time NBA champion Spurs undoubtedly won the offseason with the acquisition of the biggest name on the 2015 free agent market, All Star Power Forward LaMarcus Aldridge. Next year’s Spurs team looks to be greater than ever, which given their history, is hard to imagine.

New Spurs LaMarcus Aldridge

Photo by Spurs.com

Besides Aldridge, the Spurs also got veteran David West to agree to a 11 million pay cut to play alongside Spurs stars Parker and Kawhi and not yet ready to retire, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. So whomever the Spurs play will really be a game worth watching, but some of the more intriguing match-ups I’m looking forward to are the Cleveland Cavaliers (preview of the 2016 NBA Finals?), Los Angeles Clippers (last year’s NBA playoff series looked more like a WCF series), Golden State Warriors (in order for the Spurs to get back to the Finals, they have to get past the defending champs), and the OKC Thunder (most expect them to rebound from their injuries last year and once again be one of the teams to beat in the West).

Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors 

Rematch of the 2015 NBA Finals. Christmas Day game. Enough said.

Houston Rockets vs. Los Angeles Clippers (November 7)

Another entertaining playoff series from last year. After the Clippers blew a 3-1 series lead, the Rockets appeared to have brought back that Clutch City magic from the 90s. Josh Smith had a big impact in this series for the Rockets so it was surprising to see Houston let him go sign with the Clippers this offseason. Other big signees like Paul Pierce and Lance Stephenson for the Clippers and Ty Lawson for the Rockets should make this an even more entertaining series. Now only if we could somehow forget that whole Hack-a-Jordan/Howard free-throw nightmare.

OKC Thunder vs the best of the West and the Cavs

As mentioned earlier, injuries plagued the young stars of the Thunder so it should be interesting to see if they are able to bounce back and regain their place in the top tier of the West. With Durant and Ibaka hopefully back healthy, the Thunder will have some much improved teams to deal with in the West.

So besides the Cleveland Cavaliers, it seems the East didn’t even need to apply. Da Bulls who?

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DiMoro’s Call: Landing Spot Predictions for 5 Top Free Agents

(Bruce Ely/The Oregonian)

As we inch closer to the official start of 2015 NBA Free Agency and rumors are swirling, I wanted to take a look at 5 of the Top Free Agents and where I project them to end up signing. I based my predictions on what I have gathered from reading reports, my gut feeling and how I perceive the free agent landscape panning out once Wednesday arrives.

For each free agent I’ll provide a darkhorse team to watch. So, just in case you haven’t had your fill of NBA free agent speculation (is there ever enough?) here are a few more tidbits to help feed the appetite for more free agency talk.

For those looking for LeBron James on this list, he isn’t. Why? Because I don’t think for one minute he won’t re-sign in Cleveland.

 

LaMarcus Aldridge

LaMarcus Aldridge’s schedule of visits reads like a band’s national tour.

According to reports he is scheduled to meet with the Los Angeles Lakers first. After he meets with the Lakers he’ll then meet with the Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks, Toronto Raptors and New York Knicks (in that order).

Many people have Aldridge signing with San Antonio but I’m not completely sold that it’s pretty much a “lock” he ends up in silver and black. Yahoo Sports is reporting that Tim Duncan will reportedly join Tony Parker and Gregg Popovich when they meet with LaMarcus Aldridge in Los Angeles on Wednesday so it appears San Antonio is preparing their full court press.

But I don’t think the Spurs are interested in anything dragged out in terms of Aldridge’s decision process. So, if Aldridge leaves the meeting without a deal with the Spurs ironed out, I think it’s more likely he ends up in another uniform.

So who could that team be?

Although many would think the Mavericks or Lakers would be my choice, I think the Phoenix Suns could be a team to watch here. They have a young roster and a big need (no pun intended) for a low-post presence like Aldridge. This move would make a lot of sense and the style the Suns play could appeal to the offensive-minded Aldridge.

This is if, and a big if, he leaves his meetings with the Lakers and Spurs without deals.

Signs with: San Antonio Spurs

Darkhorse: Phoenix Suns

 

Kevin Love

Cavalier fans may not be too high on Kevin Love but he certainly is in their long-term plans.

I don’t anticipate anything dramatic happening unless the negotiations drag out a bit. The only team I would think could put a wrench in the Cavs’ plans to re-sign Love would be the Los Angeles Lakers, but I think with LeBron James putting pressure on the organization to improve the quality of talent of their roster the Cavs will get this nipped in the bud.

I anticipate Love being signed on Day 1 of free agency.

Signs with: Cleveland Cavaliers

Darkhorse: Los Angeles Lakers

 

Marc Gasol

This might be the most boring of the list.

All report are indicating the the Memphis Grizzlies are re-signing Gasol and Gasol has no visits scheduled outside of his meetings with Memphis.

I think of all the names on this list, Gasol re-signing with the Grizzlies is the closest to being a “lock”

Signs with: Memphis Grizzlies

 

DeAndre Jordan

According to ESPN, Jordan is 50/50 split between returning to the Los Angeles Clippers or signing with the Dallas Mavericks. Bottom line; he is likely staying in Los Angeles. How’s that for a headline?

At the end of the day I think Jordan will ink with the Lakers. The fact that he is even 50/50 on a decision to stay or leave isn’t a good sign for the Clippers in my opinion and I don’t think many Clipper fans are going to be heartbroken over his departure (judging from your reactions on social media)

There isn’t really a ‘darkhorse’ here since it’s pretty much a three team race, but I think the allure of a fresh start with the Lakers will be too good for Jordan to pass up.

Signs with: Los Angeles Lakers

Darkhorse: Dallas Mavericks/ Los Angeles Clippers

Greg Monroe

Detroit is likely to lose the services of Monroe, who will be seeking a lucrative short-term deal to test life outside of the Pistons’ organization.

A lot of reports link Monroe to the New York Knicks and it makes plenty of sense, but I think team’s like the Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns, Toronto Raptors and Los Angeles Lakers could come calling if they lose out on LaMarcus Aldridge.

Don’t count out the Los Angeles Clippers or the Portland Trailblazers either, but something tells me the biggest threat to a union of Monroe and the Knicks are the Toronto Raptors.

Signs with: New York Knicks

Darkhorse: Toronto Raptors

 

 

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Why the Clippers need to let DeAndre Jordan go

(Credit: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports)

After falling to the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference semifinals, it became evident that the Los Angeles Clippers need to undergo some serious changes this offseason if the team hopes to compete for a championship. While point guard Chris Paul and forward Blake Griffin both had spectacular postseasons, it was the supporting cast, led by guards J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford and forward Matt Barnes, that failed to show up.

The Clippers’ lack of depth was something that held the team back all season long. Los Angeles ranked 24th in the NBA in bench points per game, and the team’s reserves ranked 27th in field goal percentage and 29th in efficiency (according to HoopsStats ).

There were moments where the Clippers appeared to have enough depth to reach the NBA Finals. Guard Austin Rivers, son of head coach Doc Rivers, had a series of breakout performances against both the Rockets and the San Antonio Spurs. His 16-point outing on 7-of-8 shooting in Game 4 against the Spurs was a huge reason Los Angeles was able to even the series 2-2 with a 114-105 victory in San Antonio. He also helped L.A. take a 3-1 series lead over the Rockets by averaging 16 points per game through the first four games of the series.

But Rivers reverted back to his old self the final three games, going 6-for-23 from the field and scoring just 15 points. Forward Glen Davis had some moments in the San Antonio series, but he was basically a nonfactor in the Houston series. Forward Spencer Hawes, who was acquired last season from the Philadelphia 76ers, was supposed to have a much larger role on the team, but saw virtually no playing time when the playoffs arrived.

The Clippers’ only scoring threat off the bench has been Crawford, but the team’s lack of depth put a great amount of pressure on him to score. While he averaged 15.8 points per game in the regular season, he was unable to find his stroke in the playoffs, averaging 11.7 points on 38.4 percent shooting against the Spurs and 13.7 points on 34.0 percent shooting against the Rockets.

Simply put, Rivers needs to upgrade his bench if his team has any hope of competing for a title.

Enter DeAndre Jordan.

The 7-foot center has been arguably the most impressive big man over the past two seasons. While his offensive game is still a work in progress, he’s led the league in rebounding two years in a row, posting averages of 13.6 and 15.0 per game, respectively. He’s also been among the league leaders in blocks per game, and his 21.09 PER ranks ninth among NBA centers (according to ESPN’s John Hollinger ). His athleticism and size are almost unparalleled, and at age 26, he’s just entering his prime.

But Jordan will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, meaning he can sign with any team he chooses. Rivers stated that he plans on offering Jordan a max contract , and if he were to sign the deal, he would remain with Paul and Griffin for the foreseeable future.

However, this would make things very complicated for the Clippers, financially. Both Paul and Griffin are under max contracts until the 2016-17 seasons with player options for 2017-18, and Los Angeles currently has $59.7 million committed to next season’s salary cap (according to HoopsHype ), which is projected to be $67.1 million according to ESPN senior writer Marc Stein . Giving Jordan a max contract would launch L.A. over the salary cap and put the team in serious danger of exceeding the luxury cap, which would result in a luxury tax.

Oh, and that $59.7 million? Not only does that exclude Jordan, but that leaves out Crawford (who has a $5.7 million team option), the Clippers’ best reserve scorer.

If Rivers stays committed to his statement and gives Jordan a max contract, L.A. will almost certainly have to decline Crawford’s option and persuade him to sign for a lot less money. That would be foolish for him to accept, as he could fetch much more money on the open market. Secondly, offering Jordan the max would leave Rivers and the Clippers with little to no money to fill out the remainder of the roster. Ultimately, Rivers is putting his bench in a position to be even worse than it was this season if he stays true to his word.

But if Los Angeles allowed Jordan to sign elsewhere, the team would not only be able to pick up Crawford’s option, but it could bring in higher-quality free agents to fortify an abysmal reserve unit. Paul and Griffin showed this postseason that they are capable of leading their team to victory, but their efforts can only take the rest of the group so far.

The Portland Trail Blazers faced a similar situation last season. While their starting unit was one of the most effective in the league, their bench was one of the worst. So the team brought in former Los Angeles Lakers Steve Blake and Chris Kaman in the offseason and acquired former Denver Nuggets and Orlando Magic wing Aaron Afflalo at the trade deadline. Unfortunately, injuries to a handful of players including guard Wesley Matthews derailed the team’s playoff push.

DeAndre Jordan will be a hot commodity this summer. Teams like the Lakers and the New York Knicks have tons of cap space to unload, while the Spurs and the Dallas Mavericks could also make a push to sign Jordan if they strike out on Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge and Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol. In sum, Jordan could easily fetch a max contract from another team if he decides to leave the Clippers.

For L.A., it may be best to let him walk if Rivers is serious about rebuilding his bench.

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Will Chris Paul ever win a ring?

(Richard Rowe/Getty Images)

Since Chris Paul was drafted fourth overall by the (then) New Orleans Hornets in 2005, the point guard from Wake Forest has been one of the NBA’s best over the past decade. He’s a former Rookie of the Year, an eight-time All-Star, a four-time member of both the All-NBA First Team and the All-Defensive First Team, a six-time league steals leader and a four-time league assists leader. He’s won two Olympic gold medals with Team USA in 2008 and 2012 and his No. 3 jersey is retired at Wake Forest.

From a numbers standpoint, Paul has averaged a double-double in points and assists per game five times in his 10-year career. He’s also averaged at least two steals per game eight times including a career-high 2.8 per game in the 2008-09 season. At just 30 years old, he ranks 16th all-time in assists (6,950) and 24th all-time in steals (1,641).

The man known as CP3 is by all means a superstar point guard, and he’s almost a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame.

However, despite making the postseason seven times, he’s yet to win his first NBA championship. Moreover, he’s yet to advance beyond the second round.

And it’s not necessarily any fault of his own. In his third and final playoff appearance with New Orleans in 2011, he turned in arguably the best postseason performance of his career with an underwhelming supporting cast, averaging 22.0 points, 11.5 assists and a playoff career-high 6.7 rebounds per game while shooting 54.5 percent from the field and 47.4 percent from 3-point range. But it wasn’t enough, as All-Star guard Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers bounced the Hornets out of the first round in six games.

 

Things would then get messy for the Hornets. Prior to their postseason elimination, the league purchased the team from former owner George Shinn for an estimated $300 million. After the loss to the Lakers, Paul told the team he would not sign an extension and that he wanted to be traded, with the New York Knicks topping his list . New Orleans attempted to ship Paul to the Lakers in a three-team deal that would’ve sent center Pau Gasol from Los Angeles to the Houston Rockets and netted the Hornets a trio of top-flight players such as forwards Lamar Odom and Luis Scola and guard Kevin Martin. But the trade was rejected by former commissioner David Stern for “basketball reasons”, shocking the organization and generating plenty of buzz throughout the league . Paul was eventually traded to the Los Angeles Clippers for center Chris Kaman, forward Al-Farouq Aminu, guard Eric Gordon and a unprotected 2012 first-round pick via the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Through four seasons in Los Angeles, Paul has helped the Clippers compile a 206-103 record. He’s also led the team to the postseason in each of those seasons. However, the team lost three times in the Western Conference semifinals and once in the first round.

Unlike his time in New Orleans though, Paul has been surrounded by extraordinary talents throughout his tenure with the Clippers including All-Star forward and former No. 1 overall pick Blake Griffin and league-leading rebounder DeAndre Jordan. Los Angeles also brought in veteran forward Matt Barnes, sharpshooter J.J. Redick and high-volume scorer Jamal Crawford to improve the team’s shooting. Lastly, championship coach and future Hall of Famer Doc Rivers was acquired from the Boston Celtics to help bring the Clippers their first title in franchise history.

But even with all these pieces in place, Los Angeles still can’t figure it out, recently choking away a 3-1 series lead to the Rockets in the conference semifinals.

And Paul is still seeking his first conference finals bid.

With the pressure on him to finally break through, Paul performed valiantly this postseason, averaging 22.1 points and 8.8 assists in 12 playoff games while shooting 50.3 percent from the field and 94.7 percent from the free-throw line. He was also responsible for lifting the Clippers over the San Antonio Spurs in the first round after hitting a dagger off the backboard in Game 7.

 

But Paul’s performance against the Spurs will be overlooked by his team’s epic collapse against the Rockets. The Clippers led Houston at home by 19 points in the fourth quarter of Game 6 with 3-2 series lead, but were outscored 40-15 in the final 12 minutes of the game. The Rockets then took Game 7 in wire-to-wire fashion.

With their season now over, the Clippers have a number of issues to address. Jordan will be a unrestricted free agent this offseason and reports indicate he’s seeking a max contract . Paul and Griffin will make a combined total of over $40 million next season, so if Rivers offers Jordan a max deal, Los Angeles would almost certainly go over both the salary cap and the luxury cap. Unless the Clippers decline Crawford’s $5.7 million team option and/or find a way to deal Redick, Barnes and/or center Spencer Hawes, new owner Steve Ballmer will likely be forced to pay the penalty for going over the limit.

Another interesting twist is that Jordan and Paul reportedly had a falling out during the season that could drive Jordan away from Los Angeles. With the Clippers’ tight financial situation, all signs could point to Jordan leaving if these reports are true. And if he does end up signing elsewhere, can Rivers lead the team to a title without one of the league’s best young big men?

Rivers stated after the Game 7 loss that rebuilding the bench will be one of his top priorities this summer . But if he gives Jordan a five-year, $108.3 million max extension, the team’s funds to bring in quality reserves will be almost, if not completely nonexistent. Therefore, it would make more sense for Los Angeles to let Jordan walk if the team truly wants to improve its bench.

Overall, there is a lot of uncertainty hovering over the Clippers, and as the team gears up for another championship-or-bust season, the pressure and expectations will continue to mount on Paul to deliver.

Or if he will deliver at all.

Russell Hodges is an NBA writer for Sports Rants. Follow him on Twitter @russelljhodges

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Rocket Fuel

credit: joeraquiza.info

The NBA MVP is the league’s most prestigious individual award. While there are a multitude of statistics  you could use to argue for either Stephen Curry or James Harden, there is now one simple fact.

Stephen Curry is the 2014-2015 NBA MVP.

Another fact? Professional athletes have large egos. It’s what helps them reach seemingly impossible levels of greatness. The difference is being able to use that ego to remain at the top, while not letting it take over them as a whole. So one would not be surprised to find out James Harden feels snubbed- and rightfully so. Harden spoke to ESPN.com following the MVP announcement:

That’s tough, but we’re in the second round of the playoffs and I got better things to worry about and that’s the Clippers,” Harden said. “They’re a very good team that’s rolling right now and it didn’t work out. But there’s more of the season to continue to play.

Whoever came in second in this year’s race would have felt that way. But now that it’s all said and done, Harden can’t wallow in self-pity, or blind himself with rage. He needs to take a page out of former Thunder teammate Russell Westbrook’s book and play with a chip on his shoulder.

This doesn’t mean Harden needs to dominate the ball even more. Quite the opposite. This added edge should motivate him to showcase those MVP-like skills we’ve seen all season. Whether it’s hitting his patented stepback jumper , dazzling with his handles , dishing it to his teammates or playing much improved defense- Harden must channel this sense of resentment.

“The Beard” is coming off a regular season which saw him hit career-highs in points, rebounds, assists, free throw percentage, makes and attempts. But more importantly, his team is coming off of five days’ rest after putting away the Dallas Mavericks. The perks are obvious. More time to rest up, treat any ailments and to scout the upcoming opponent. But there is a slippery slope of having plenty of time to heal up, while not resting too long and letting complacency set in.

There have likely been plenty of people in Houston’s ear that have congratulated them on a job well done against an in-state rival. While satisfying, the Rockets must remain hungrier than ever to go farther in the playoffs. Harden’s quest for the scoring title and MVP came up short, but he has bigger things on his horizon:

Obviously, an individual award, the MVP, is amazing. But like I said we got an amazing opportunity in this locker room and I’m not going to let one individual award affect what we got going on in this locker room. We still have a great season to play in and some great games ahead of us.

The team’s chemistry on the court is at a season high- all the way from Harden to the last guy on the bench. Dwight Howard looks to have returned to his old form both on offense and defense- but must stay on the court to be effective. Howard spoke to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle about his latest conversation with former Rocket great and mentor Hakeem Olajuwon:

The main thing Dream has been telling me is really to stay on the floor. He knows I want to use my physical play to beat down opponents, but more so, use my legs and my feet instead of my arms and try to make it a weight-room match. That’s his big message, just keep playing as hard as I am, keep dominating the paint, but stay on the floor.

 

One-time problem child Josh Smith has found his way- and along with Corey Brewer- power the Rockets’ second unit. Even the so-called “grandpas” in Jason Terry and Pablo Prigioni are making up on both sides of the ball for the absent Patrick Beverley. The point guard duo will have to contend with Paul, Jamal Crawford and sharp-shooting J.J Redick

That chemistry, along with the fact Houston opens up Game 1 at home are integral.

On the flip side, the Clippers are coming off a war with San Antonio. While spirits are high that they dispatched of the defending champions, the Los Angeles camp must have doubts. Starting point guard Chris Paul is probable with a hamstring injury . Normally it’d be quite the blow to the Clippers- but tonight would be an even bigger one with how out-of-his-mind Paul has been playing: 22.7 points, 7.9 assists and 2 steals per game. Paul has also shot 43% from beyond the arc, making any potential missed time a true robbery for not only Clippers’ fans but NBA fans in general. Harden and Paul have developed quite the on-court chemistry as well.

Regardless of Paul’s hamstring, one thing rings true for this series. The big boys have come to play.  Dwight Howard hadn’t played in any of the four regular season games against LAC, but is peaking at the right time. Blake Griffin (24 ppg/13 rpg in 7 games against the Spurs) will look to expose any weakness Houston has at the four with Terrence Jones and Josh Smith. Both Dwight (13.8) and DeAndre Jordan (13.3) have been monsters on the boards. The con is that both allow either team to utilize the hack-a strategy. Jordan shoots 38% at the line, and Dwight a slightly better 46%.

When first asked about Chris Paul’s status, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers told the LA Times, “Uh, he’s alive.”

So is James Harden. And if he can use this perceived MVP snub as fuel, it’ll only lead to a man-and team- on fire.

 

Like it? Love it? Hate it? Let me know @SeanNeutron .

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NBA Playoffs Second Round Preview and Picks

(image from miragesbg.com)

 

The second round of the 2015 NBA playoffs is underway. ‘12’ is now the magic number of wins that separate one team from NBA history. For those of you keeping score at home, I went 7-1 for first round predictions, barely missing the Clippers-Spurs series (Part 1 & Part 2 ). The answer to your question is yes, self high-fives are pathetic. Though, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the first round didn’t go exactly how I anticipated. Last year’s first round gave us five game sevens and some of the most entertaining basketball of the playoffs; this year, not so much. One game seven and a series of series where only one team showed up left me in a state of wanting more. But if history is any indicator, then a putrid first round will be followed up with an exciting second round. At least that’s how I’m going to go about it.

Playoff Stats:

Home Teams: 26-15

Home teams in closeout games to put the series away: 3-2

 

And now let’s get to our second round preview!

Western Conference

(1)  Golden State Warriors vs. (5) Memphis Grizzlies

First Round Finishes: GSW 4 – NOP 0; Mem 4 – Por 1

Season Series: GSW 2 – Mem 1

Saying that the Golden State Warriors made short-work of the New Orleans Pelicans would be an insult to Anthony Davis and company. The Dubs defended home court without much of a scare in games one and two, but it took a historic 20 point fourth quarter comeback and a no-look three pointer from (the likely) MVP Stephen Curry to force overtime in game three, where they eventually pilfered a win from the Pellies in New Orleans. The Warriors shot 50.6% from the field in game four en route to an 11 point victory, clinching the sweep. In part one of my first round preview, I said Anthony Davis would have his way with the Warriors; and he did, averaging 31.5 points, 11 rebounds, 3 blocks, and shooting 54% from the field in four games. Well played, Brow, well played.

(Image fromscmp.com) Call me a softie, but this picture is one of my favorites from round one

The Memphis Grizzlies found themselves on the happy end of the controversial seeding rule that gave the Portland Trail Blazers a four seed, despite them having the West’s sixth best record. Instead of playing the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs, they squared off against an injury depleted Trail Blazers team.

If there’s any team left in the playoffs that would benefit from rest, it’s the Grizzlies. Mike Conley’s surgery may have been a success, but his return for the second round is up in the air. Mike Conley may not have the notoriety like Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook, but there’s no doubt in my mind he’s a top ten point guard in the game right now. He’s a veteran table-setter who knows how and when to get his teammates involved, and can take over a game with his scoring ability if that’s what the situation calls for. His impact on the Grizzlies cannot be accurately measured by his numbers.

We saw his value in the last series when the Grizz were seemingly on cruise control in games one and two. All eyes were on Damian Lillard, as Conley and the Grizzlies exploited his inability to defend. On the other end of the court, Lillard put up sub-Damian numbers, including 18 points and 4.3 assists per game, while shooting 35.2% from the field in the first three games of the series. When Conley went down, backups Beno Udrih and Nick Calathes saw more playing time. Lillard went for 27 points and 5 assists in games four and five, while putting up a 46.7% clip. CJ McCollum had a similar story arc, averaging 11.3 points on 34.3% shooting in games one through three, and then 25.5 points/game on a 62.5% clip then next two games. Coincidence? I don’t believe in coincidences.

I’m going to operate under the assumption that Mike Conley will not be available for at least the first two games of this series. If Tony Allen, Udrih, and Calathes had their hands full with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, I have serious doubts they’ll be able to contain the Splash Brothers Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph will present match-up problems for the Warriors at times, but they won’t find the same success that Anthony Davis found in round one because they’re just not that type of player.

The Warriors are now 41-2 at home since the start of the season. I expect the Grizzlies to drop games one and two in Oakland, because there is no way they will be able to keep up with the Warriors without Conley’s leadership. Jeff Green is just too inconsistent, and I can’t see Gasol and Z-Bo carrying this team when the Splash Brothers are raining three’s. Conley’s game three return will keep games three and four close in Memphis, but I don’t expect Golden State to lose both games on the road. The Grizzlies’ offensive woes and Mike Conley’s absence will hurt them in this series, but it’s Golden State’s up-tempo style that will ultimately be Memphis’ demise. If you’re going to beat a historically great team, then one of your best three players can’t be hurt.

Warriors defeat Grizzlies in 5

 

(2) Houston Rockets vs. (3) Los Angeles Clippers

First Round Finishes: Hou 4 – Dal 1; LAC 4 – SAS 3

Season Series: Hou 2 – LAC 2

I picked Houston to win their round one series with the Mavericks in seven games, because I somehow forgot that Rajon Rondo is a cancer to his team, Tyson Chandler is the Mavs’ only big that can play defense, Dirk Nowitzki is a 37 year old 7-footer, and Josh Smith was the third best player in this series. Wait, WHAT?!

You read that right.

Smith’s first round stats: 17.4 point, 6.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and shot 51.5% from the field…and 39.1% from three! He managed to put up the second most points and assists for the Rockets, despite not even starting one game. Josh Smith is the not the third star that the Rockets deserve; but he’s the third star they need right now.

Other points of emphasis:

  • James Harden exorcised last year’s playoff demons by putting up a 28-8-4 stat line on 46.5% shooting. Those who said he wouldn’t be able to get to the free throw line in the playoffs can chew on his 52 free throw attempts in that opening series.
  • Dwight Howard looks healthy. His 16.6 points, 13.8 rebounds, and 3 blocks per game make the Rockets a very scary team.
  • Depth was not an issue in the first round: five Rockets scored double-digits per game, including two bench players.

Take these points with a cinderblock of salt, though. In early March I said I felt that the Mavericks were headed for an inevitable first round exit. The Mavs simply could not defend the Rockets, likely inflating a few players’ stats (cough, Josh Smith, cough). But the fact is James Harden and Dwight Howard are playing like a first-banana and second-banana should be playing, they’re getting contributions from their bench, and most importantly the Rockets are on to the next round.

(Image from Bleacher Report) Both CP3 [left] and Harden [right] have carried their teams throughout the season. We’ll find out who can carry that load a little further.

The Clippers-Spurs series may have been one of the best round one bouts I’ve ever seen (feel free to argue). This series had a Western Conference Finals feel to it. After squandering game five at home, Chris Paul and company put together one of the best two-game stretches in Clippers history (no argument there), winning on the road in game six to set up a chance to close out the two-time reigning Western Conference Champions at home in game seven. Game seven was a closely contested game throughout, and it took another Blake Griffin triple-double and the biggest shot of Chris Paul’s career (soooo much hyperbole in this paragraph!) to finally put the down Spurs and quiet Clippers critics (for the time being). Well done, Clippers.

The Rockets are well-rested after closing out the Mavericks in five games; whereas, the Clippers played their best basketball all season in seven games with the Spurs. More often than not, I’m riding with the team playing well coming off the long series because I’m a believer in momentum. But the reason I picked the Spurs to be beat the Clippers in the first round was the lack of quality depth on the Clippers’ bench. Blake Griffin averaged 41 minutes per game in that first round series, and CP3, JJ Redick, and DeAndre Jordan all averaged 36 to 39 minutes per game. By the way, the Clips’ starting five averaged 80.7 of the team’s 103 points per game. Though, I will cede that the Clippers did get quality bench play at opportune times from Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, and Glen Davis.

However, I can’t see this level of play sustaining against a well-rested Rockets team. I think those seven games with the Spurs were as mentally taxing and it were physical. For that reason alone, I’m out .

Rockets defeat Clippers in 6

 

Eastern Conference

(1) Atlanta Hawks vs. (5) Washington Wizards

First Round Finishes: Atl 4 – Brk 2 ; Was 4 – Tor 0

Season Series: Atl 3 – Was 1

The Atlanta Hawks non-believers really came out of the woodwork in the first round series with the Brooklyn Nets. Somehow, the vaunted Hawks and their system blew two road games and allowed a team that didn’t even really belong in the playoffs to push the series to six games. I’m not going to reach for the “they don’t have a go-to star” low-hanging fruit; instead, I’ll point out their injury situation.

But first, let me point out that you don’t just walk into a 60-22 overall record (which is good for the league’s second best record), with a 29-11 record against playoff teams. That’s a team that’s done everything they can in the span of a regular season to give them the best chance to come out of the Eastern Conference.

Coach Budenholzer’s pace-and-space system has allowed the Hawks to utilize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. However teams, coaches, and offensive/defensive schemes are more sophisticated in the playoffs. It’s very hard to hide your weaknesses when the opposing coach is game planning specifically for your team for a four to seven game series. If there was coach and team that was going to expose the Hawks, it wasn’t going to be Lionel Hollins and the Nets. Not once did I think Brooklyn was going to win that series, even when it was tied at two games apiece.

Back to the injury comment earlier. You’ve heard the overly used cliché “well-oiled machine” when describing certain systems. Think of the Atlanta Hawks as a car. When all the parts work, it gets you from point-a to point-b without any dilemmas. However, throw in a transmission problem or a faulty tire alignment, and you’ve got yourself a problem. You’re still going to be able to get to the grocery store and back without anything going drastically wrong; but if you have to make a long day trip somewhere, battling potholes, environmental conditions, and constant driving, then you’re car is likely to break down at some point.

That’s the Atlanta Hawks right now. Paul Milsap and Al Horford are banged up, putting more pressure on the other parts to compensate for the injured parts. It’s one thing to be injured in the regular season. Coaches can elect to rest the banged up players for long stretches at a time. In the playoffs, high level games are happening on two to three days’ rest. Atlanta did not do themselves any favors by letting their first round series go past five games. Now they’ll face a young and fresh Washington Wizards team that’s had over a week to rest and game plan for this series.

(Image from Yahoo! Sports) I love when I see teammates having fun with each other outside of games. It’s great for team chemistry, which goes a long way in the playoffs.

The Wizards are on the right side of the spectrum. They came into this season with a second round playoff appearance in their hip pockets, expecting to make the next leap. However, they were injured for long stretches of time throughout the season, putting somewhat of a chokehold on their development. All year fans wondered what this team would look like if they were healthy. Enter the first round of the playoffs. A 4-0 sweep of the Toronto Raptors, despite the Wiz-kids having to play the first two games in the T Dot. John Wall was slashing-and-kicking, Bradley Beal and Marcin Gortat started looking like 2014 Beal and Gortat, and Otto Porter started looking like an actual NBA rotation player. Let’s not undermine Paul Pierce’s role on this team, as well. He gives this young team leadership, swagger, and a swift kick in the butt. Coach Randy Wittman’s decision to move Pierce to the four spot has proven to be effective, and will help the Wiz in their series with the Hawks.

Pierce’s new role as a stretch-four will be beneficial for the Wizards in the second round. The Hawks pace-and-space offense keeps the bigs away from the basket, which would have been a problem for the Nene-Gortat frontcourt since they’re not comfortable playing so far from the paint. Pierce’s quality defense and perimeter instincts will serve him well against Paul Milsap. I also like John Wall over Jeff Teague in the battle of the point guards. But the biggest concern I have for the Hawks is there health. If they could stay healthy, I’d take the Hawks in seven; but I can’t see myself picking a team that’s’ so banged up playing against a team that’s healthy and hot at the right time.

Wizards defeat Hawks in 6

 

(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (3) Chicago Bulls

First Round Finishes: Cle 4 – Bos 0; Chi 4 – Mil 2

Season Series: Cle 3 – Chi 1

The Eastern Conference Playoffs path for the Cleveland Cavaliers has had somewhat of a “This is Your Life” kind of feel for LeBron James. Round one gave us a Cavaliers-Celtics match up that was reminiscent of the old days; and by ‘old days’ I mean three to six years ago. The city of Boston and their beloved Celtics have despised the King long before it was cool to despise the King; from his first go-around in Cleveland, to his four year stint in Miami, and now back to Cleveland. Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo, and Doc Rivers weren’t walking through that door. But this first round match up gave us a new chapter in the LeBron-Celtics rivalry, to the tune of LeBron talking smack to Evan Turner, Kelly Olynyk tearing Kevin Love’s labrum, and JR Smith’s cheap shot on Jae Crowder.

Round two will pin LeBron and the Cavs against another familiar adversary: the Chicago Bulls. This will mark the fourth time the Bulls will face a LeBron-laden team in the playoffs (Chicago has lost all three duels). If there’s one thing I love about Bulls center Joakim Noah, it’s his competitiveness; or more so his disdain for anyone NOT wearing a Bulls uniform. As for the King? Let’s just say there’s a special place in Noah’s heart for one LeBron James. Just look up “Joakim Noah hates LeBron James ” on YouTube, and I promise you won’t be disappointed. Derrick Rose may be Chicago’s son and Jimmy Butler may be a budding star, but Joakim Noah is the heart of the Chicago Bulls. And he wears that heart on his sleeve.

(Image from CavsNation.com) This image sums up what LeBron-laden teams have done to the Bulls in the playoffs.

This will be my favorite series of the second round, and not just for the aforementioned reasons. I chose Cavs/Bulls as my preseason pick for the Eastern Conference Finals earlier this year, but since the Atlanta Hawks decided to crash the party I’ll have to settle for these two playing in the second round.

There’s a lot going on in this series for both teams. Cleveland lost Kevin Love, his 18.3 points and 9 rebounds/game, and depth in the front court for the remainder of the playoffs due to a torn labrum suffered at the arms of Kelly Olynyk. They’ll also be without starting headcase shooting guard JR Smith for the first two games of this series due to the swing he took at the Celtics’ Jae Crowder in game four of round one; which is ironically not the first time JR Smith took a cheap shot at a Celtic’s player in the first round of the playoffs at the TD Garden . Then there’s the big green elephant in the room that even though the Cavs swept the Celts, they let them hang around in each of the four games. The Celtics may have been scrappy, but the Cavaliers probably should have had a slightly larger average margin of victory, no?

As for the Bulls, can you remember the last time any team went from “can this team find a groove in the playoffs?” to “this team can win the East,” to “are we sure this team is healthy enough to make a run?” back to “this team can win the East” all in the span of a six-game series? Joakim Noah and Nikola Mirotic are banged up, Derrick Rose has been inconsistent, and the Bulls were outplayed in there closeout game at home. Anyone who’s bearish on the Bulls (pun intended) is probably not that far off.

I’m going to give both the Cavs and the Bulls the benefits of the doubt for their last series. The Cavs knew they were far and away better than the Celtics, and just took them lightly. If they wanted to, they could’ve beaten them by 20 each of the first four games; but they didn’t want to expend all that energy in the first round, nor give anything away to their next opponents. I think the Bulls just assumed they were going to close out the series in game five in Chicago; but Milwaukee put together one of their best games of the season and just blew past a Bulls team that was looking ahead to the Cavs. I feel pretty good about that statement considering they put a 54-point smackdown on the Bucks in Milwaukee in game 6 to end the series.

Taking all the variables into consideration, I’d be shocked if this series didn’t go to seven games. I can see this series being tied at two, with both teams stealing a win on the opponent’s home court. It should be interesting to see the adjustments (figure) Head Coach David Blatt and (player coach) LeBron James make without two of their starters, and how the Bulls respond. I also look forward to seeing if the Bulls’ inconsistencies carry over into the second round. There’s no doubt that both teams will get up for each game;  but I think the home court advantage takes over games five, six, and seven.

Cavaliers defeat Bulls in 7

Honorable mention: Jimmy Butler has averaged 24.8 points, 3.8 assists, 5.5 rebounds, 2.5 steals and has posted a 48-41-79 shooting split. In the words of Teddy KGB from Rounders, “Pay that man his money .”


That does it for my second round preview and predictions! Expect a conference finals preview in about two weeks. While I may have patted myself on the back for my round one picks, just know I will be back even if I go 0-4 in round two; and I’ll eat crow.

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5 Observations and Rants to Chew on During the NBA Playoffs

(Image from DailyNexus.com)

 

With the NBA playoffs off and running there’s been no shortage of story lines and talking points for us fans to chew on. I’ll save my series-by-series breakdown for my Second Round Preview and Picks column set to go up in about a week. But here are some observations and rants that I want to get off my chest in the mean time.

 

1. Derrick Rose is playing like a man on a mission.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: “Derrick Rose hasn’t played a playoff game since April 28, 2012.”

Other Chicago Bulls narratives that just get beaten to death in no specific order:

  • Derrick Rose will never again be the player we saw in 2012.
  • Tom Thibodeau has worn out his welcome in Chicago.
  • (Enter any Bulls player here) can’t stay healthy.
  • It’s now or never for the Bulls to win a championship.

Yada yada yada, we get the picture.

In 51 regular season games this year , Derrick Rose averaged 17.7 points, 4.9 assists, and 3.2 rebounds in 30 minutes/game. If his per game stats left something to be desired, then his 40-28-81 shooting splits certainly made Bull’s fans pull their hair out.

The NBA playoffs are a time where 16 fortunate teams start off 0-0 again. “New year, new me” is a lie that many of us tell ourselves every January 1st, but Rose has taken this resolution to heart. So far in these playoffs, he’s averaged 24 points, 8 assists, and 4 rebounds in 37.8 minutes/game. His efficiency has improved dramatically, as well, putting up 47-45-92 shooting splits. While the sample size may be small (three games), D-Rose has obviously made it a point to play every game as if it’s his last . If he’s going to go out, he’s going to go out playing the way he loves.

He’s confident, he’s fearless, and he’s back.

 

 

2. Insert mandatory “Tim Duncan defies father time” acknowledgement here.

Many fans will remember game two of the Clippers-Spurs series for Blake Griffin’s triple-double, or his untimely/unforced turnover with 13 seconds left in regulation . It’s fair to say I’ll remember that game for those reasons too. But what most of us won’t remember is the historical significance of this game.

(Image from AirAlamo.com) How is it possible that the best power forward of all time doubles as the best player that nobody talks about?

Tim Duncan led the Spurs with a 28 point, 11 rebound performance, marking the 100th playoff game he’s posted at least 20 points and 10 rebounds. What really stands out to me is not the quantity of these games, but the duration. Tim Duncan now has 20/10 playoff games 17 years apart. It took a little digging, but turns out only three other players in NBA history have put 20/10 playoff performances at least 17 years apart: Magic Johnson (17), Karl Malone (18), and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (20) [A thousand pardons to any legend I may have missed]. While you’re at it, throw in that Duncan became the fifth player in NBA history to score 5,000 playoff points.

Longevity is rare for NBA players; productive longevity is even rarer. Dominant longevity? He’s on the shortlist.

 

3. Stop calling it “Hack-a-Jordan!”

This section isn’t about why the “Hack-a-whomever” strategy is ruining the NBA; or how it’s a brilliant chess move employed by the wisest of coaches. This is about what’s right!

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Stop calling intentional fouls “Hack-a-Jordan” or “Hack-a-Dwight.” Heck, I even heard Mike Krzyzewski say “Hack-a-Okafor” once this season! You know why Hack-a-Shaq sounds so natural and smooth? Because it’s a cool phrase and it rhymes. Not only do these contemporary examples not rhyme, the last one is just an aberration of proper grammar!

(Image from NBA.com) Hack-a-Jordan sounds like another phrase for “The Jordan Rules”  that the Pistons employed during the Michael Jordan era

Hack-a-Shaq is an homage to the only strategy that (sometimes) stopped Shaquille O’Neal from dominating games. Swiping at DeAndre Jordan and calling it “Hack-a-Jordan” is an insult to Shaq and his legacy. We haven’t changed the “Ted Stepien Rule ” to the “James Dolan Rule,” or the “Larry Bird Exception ” to the “Carmelo Anthony Exception,” so why is this even an issue? Let’s not become prisoners of the modern-day NBA. These may not be the first examples of their respective rules; but they’re the most famous examples, and we have to respect that.

DeAndre Jordan has had 29 free throw attempts in the first three games of this series , so expect to see a lot more hacking (oddly enough he had zero free throw attempts in game three). I propose that every time he’s intentionally fouled, fans call it “Hack-a-Shaq.” Every time Dwight Howard is hacked, call it “Hack-a-Shaq.” Every time Rondo is hacked….oh wait, never mind (too soon?).

Let’s a Hack-a-Shaq this Hack-a-Jordan nonsense until justice is served.

 

4. Rick Carlisle should tread carefully moving forward.

To put it bluntly, Rajon Rondo stunk this year. The Mavericks were 20-8 when they traded for him, and finished the season 30-24. As if his shooting woes weren’t bad enough (43-31-40) , he was also constantly bickering with the coach and appeared to have his own agenda during games. I’m not going to fault the Mavericks for making this trade. I thought it was a good gamble to bring in a former all-star point guard with championship pedigree; the right cards just didn’t come out. The benching was warranted; I know that, you know that, and the media knows that.

The players may view this differently, though.

The NBA being the player-driven league that it is, players don’t like to be alienated and publicly benched; especially during primetime NBA playoff games. They don’t like hearing coaches take shots at their players. And they REALLY don’t like it when this stuff happens during contract years; because now it’s affecting their money.

(Image from NESN.com) Those who live by the system shall perish by the system

This isn’t college basketball where the coach is the face of their program. It’s the front office’s job to bring in the right players, and it’s the coach’s job to coach said players. If the players don’t fit the coach’s system, then that coach needs to change his system to best utilize his players. If the coach cannot do that, then he’s relieved of his duties. This is why system coaches typically do not survive in the NBA. Gregg Popovich is obviously the exception, a system coach surviving in a players’ league.

The Mavericks have nearly $34 million coming off their books after this year , and there’s a star-studded free agency class this summer. It’s worth noting that pending free agent LaMarcus Aldridge is a Dallas native who also played his college ball in Texas. With Dirk Nowitzki, Monta Ellis, and Chandler Parsons all under contract for the next two years, it’s reasonable to believe that the Mavericks could contend for a championship next year if they strike gold in free agency.

Rick Carlisle is walking down a bumpy road, because not many coaches have been able to duplicate what Pop has accomplished. Players don’t take kindly to coaches putting them in their place; and some players may think twice about signing up to play for such a strict coach. Mark Cuban appears to have Carlisle’s back for now, despite the Rondo fiasco. If not for the 2011 championship he helped bring to Dallas, Carlisle may be coaching somewhere else. But if a player like LaMarcus Aldridge this summer or Kevin Durant next summer snubs Dallas because Carlisle rubs them the wrong way, don’t think for a second that Mark Cuban won’t hit up the coaching carousel.

Rick Carlisle has to decide right now what kind of coach he’s going to be. His job depends on it.

 

5. I was mad at the Scott Brooks firing, until I remembered he should have been fired years ago.

Ok, I’m cheating a little bit here. This is not a playoff story. But in all fairness, Scott Brooks’ firing was at the top of the headlines despite playoff basketball going on. I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least comment on what happened.

Scott Brooks was not the reason why the Oklahoma City Thunder failed to make the playoffs this year. The reason is that their three best players, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka, missed a combined 88 regular season games and still only managed to miss the playoffs by virtue of a tie-breaker. Hats off to Brooks for accomplishing this feat in the loaded Western Conference.

(Image from USAToday.com) It’s hard to imagine that Scott Brooks will ever coach a team as talented as the Thunder again

But as I said in the last section, it’s the coach’s job to adjust their system to maximize the talent of their players. The Oklahoma City Thunder have had two of the best 10 players in the NBA on their roster for the last five years, with only one finals appearance to show for it. Yes, injuries have had a large part to do with that result; but at a certain point you have to look at this team’s body of work.

How many times have we watched Russell Westbrook shoot the ball on three or four straight possessions, then give the ball to Kevin Durant so that he could shoot the ball on three or four straight possessions? How many times have we seen Durant AND Westbrook on the bench for prolonged stretches during big games? How many times have we seen Kendrick Perkins play crunch time minutes in those same big games?

It’s not very often that I’ve said to myself, “Scott Brooks just out-coached (insert any top 5 coach here).” I’ll give him credit for developing Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, and James Harden. It can’t be a coincidence that all four of these players turned into dominant players at their positions. But as far as coaching acumen goes, Scott Brooks peaked with this team three years ago.

 

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