Free Agency Quick Hits: Intrigue in LA

 

clippers-lakers

Buried beneath the flurry of headlines about Carmelo, the Clips have quietly put together the league’s best offseason to date.  Those who’ve questioned the wisdom behind Doc’s steady accretion to unrivaled power (yours truly among them) can’t help but be impressed by his decisive, pitch-perfect acquisitions of Spencer Hawes and Jordan Farmar.


Grading Acquisitions

Spencer Hawes (4 years, $23 million). 

Consider this: the Clips just added the second best center available in free agency for less than half of the annual salary awarded to the one guy (Marcin Gortat) most teams rated higher.  Then consider that Hawes’s deal is one year shorter than Gortat’s.  And take a minute to appreciate that Hawes is the superior fit for the Clips, since his shooting and shot blocking compliments Blake Griffin just as well as DeAndre Jordan.  Finally, recall that unquestionably, a capable third big man presented the Clippers most glaring hole last season.  Need meets value meets synergies on the court.

DeAndre Jordan, Matthew Dellavedova, Spencer Hawes

No one would’ve batted an eye had another team awarded Hawes the same $23 million on a two year deal.  It’s just incredible.  I won’t further indulge my hyperbolic urges here: suffice to say, the Clips hit a homerun.

Grade: A+


Jordan Farmar (2 years, $4.2 million, Player Option Y2)

Rest easy, 29 teams not named the Clippers: they’re out of money.  Just don’t get used to that feeling, as the Clippers just nullified its only loss his offseason by filling the spot left by one UCLA point guard with another Bruin product.  Don’t let the money fool you; Farmar’s no poor man’s Darren Collison.  Rather, he may well prove to be an upgrade.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Los Angeles Lakers

Would you rather pay Collision $16 million over three years or Farmar $4 million over two?  I suspect few GMs would feel compelled to check the stats before answering.  For any potential doubters, here’s what you need to know: during his past two seasons in the league, Famar’s shot a scorching 44% from beyond the arc.  Collison?  A respectable, but hardly noteworthy 36%.   Not only is Farmar a considerably better marksmen, he’s a better playmaker too. Per 48 minutes Famar dished 10.9 assists to Collison’s 6.9.  Then there’s defense. Where Collison can’t guard anyone, Farmar’s a reliably pesky defender with the foot speed, lateral agility, and pluck to stick with the league’s bumper crop of dynamic guards.

And don’t discount Farmar’s championship pedigree.  He’s won 11 playoff series and appeared in 3 NBA Finals.  Collison’s prevailed in just 2,  yet to play in a conference finals.

Tip of the hat to you, Doc Rivers.

Grade: A


Please Tell Me Mitch Isn’t Banking on Nash

In a vacuum, losing Farmar to the rival Clips isn’t a devastating blow to the Lakers’ offseason.  Take a look at the remaining free-agent point guards, however, and the cause for concern quickly becomes apparent.  On a roster most Lakers fans hoped wouldn’t include Steve Nash, it appears increasingly likely that he’ll be back in the mix with Kendall Marshall, rookie Jordan Clarkson, and one of these remaining free agents: Mario Chalmers, Jameer Nelson, Grevious Vasquez, Ramon Sessions, Kirk Hinrich, Mo Williams, D.J. Augustin, Steve Blake, Luke Ridnour, and Toney Douglas.

'Positive' doesn't exactly capture Lakers fans' sentiment about this potential reunion.
Positive’ doesn’t exactly capture Lakers fans’ sentiment about this potential reunion.

Ugh.  Vasquez is solid, but appears likely to be back in Toronto.  Blake and Hinrich are steady hands, but long in the tooth and increasingly vulnerable on defense.  After that?  I mean, damn.  What’s the pitch to Carmelo, come to LA and thrive in an offense ran by Mo Williams?  To compound the problem, LA had Farmar’s bird rights — they could go over the cap to keep him a Laker.  Now, LA must either carve out a chunk of its cap space to fill out it’s back court with one of the aforementioned less than enticing options.

Unless Bledsoe’s more getable than has been reported, or the Lakers’ brass envisions Lance Stephenson at the point, the pickings are depressingly slim.  Fellow Lakers fans, here’s to hoping I’m missing something.

Mock Draft 3.0

He must be giddy.  Relegated for years to the 2nd Round  (a task that felt more like divulging than announcing) for the first time, the NBA’s still green Commissioner, Adam Silver, will announce 1st Round draft picks tonight.

Just when it seemed as though little mystery would surround his first few announcements, the revelation of Joel Embiid’s broken foot shook up the draft board.  To further muddy the waters, Lebron’s surprising decision to opt-out of his contract six days early, coupled with Carmelo’s growing getability, has sent half the league jockeying for pole position.  In a draft that has loomed large for more than a year because of its rare, deep collection of talent, free-agency now threatens to thicken the plot, if not swallow the storyline.

Forget about suspense and complexity for a minute: this is the draft that produced a national obsession with tanking.  Oh, and it’s also easily the best draft in five, maybe even ten years. No fewer than 15, and perhaps even 20 players stand poised to capture influential roles next season.  That’s reason enough to get excited.

cavs1. Andrew Wiggins.  If you believe the rumors, the Cavs want Jabari, but Jabari doesn’t want them back (and proved as much by tanking his mostrecent workout in Cleveland).  The second part makes enough sense.  The Cavs are a mess, and have been since before Lebron left.  With a contentious locker room, ball dominant guards, and a stead of high draft picks that have more or less disappointed, Cleveland’s not exactly Mecca to a young forward whose best skill is scoring.

Cleveland’s alleged crush on Jabari is more puzzling. Like Kyrie and Dion, Jabari has the markers of a scorer.  That is, he’ll need the ball a lot to maximize his potential.  And like last year’s #1 overall pick, Anthony Bennett,  the concerns about Jabari’s defense are as legitimate as they are unanimous- he won’t be able to stay in front of the league’s quicker 3s and isn’t big enough to guard its more imposing 4s.  This is a long way of saying that Parker’s not a great fit for the Cavs.

Yes he’s a sure thing, and to a certain extent, one can understand the appeal of pairing Kyrie with a young running mate who by all accounts is a good guy.  He’d improve the Cavs, just not where they most need improvement — perimeter defense.

Conversely, Wiggins is precisely the antidote to what ails the Cavs.  He’ll immediately leverage his elite athleticism to impact the game on defense.  That he showed an inclination to play defense at Kansas bolsters that contention.  Further, Wiggins doesn’t need the ball, and seemingly would be content to float in and out of the offense as he did in college while Kyrie runs the show.  And don’t forget, Parker’s ceiling pales in comparison to Wiggins’s.  If they both put it all together, we’re looking at Tracy McGrady 2.0 vs. Glenn Robinson (at his peak) 2.0.  It’s safe to say everyone would prefer T-Mac.

What are we missing?  Perhaps nothing at  all.  Milwaukee’s made no secret that it covets Parker.  There’s a good chance that Cleveland’s posturing, putting up smoke screens in an attempt to extract something extra from Milwaukee in the process of getting their guy.  Here’s the best evidence that it’ll be Wiggins, not Parker, who the Cavs tap at #1:  Vegas has Wiggins as the prohibitive favorite to go #1, his odds at -300, while Parker’s at +200.

bucks2. Jabari Parker. Maybe there’s too much pointing to Milwaukee selecting Jabari here.  Nobody’s this transparent, right?  That could well have been the case before Embiid effectively bowed out of the running, but it’s hard to envision the Bucks foregoing the sure thing, close to hometown (Parker’s from Chicago) kid in favor the unknown Australian, the uncertain future of Embiid, or anyone else available.  Long time Bucks’ fans know that  the Big Dawg comp. is no insult.  They’ll be thrilled to have some star power to fuel the next wave of Fear the Deer.

76ers3. Dante Exum. After Wiggins and Jabari, consensus fractures. At least 7 players occupy the draft’s next tier (Exum, Embiid, Gordon, Randle, Vonleh, Smart, Payton).  Deciphering which player teams prefer becomes pure guesswork, as any report that begins “Sources say…” is more likely disinformation than accurate prognosis.  Most mock drafts have Exum here.  But read what Grantland’s Ryan Russillo was able to cajole out of several NBA scouts regarding the 6’5″ point guard from down under.

It’s tough to come away from those reports (which noted how little information is available on Exum) feeling like Exum’s anything close to a lock at #3. Yet, the case is no stronger for anyone else. As rumors swirl that MCW could be on the move, Philly surely needs to bolster it’s backcourt. Could they shock the world and take Smart or the late rising Elfrid Payton?  How about locking-in its frontcourt of the complimenting Noel with Randle?  In either case, the value wouldn’t match the pick. If they don’t love Exum, Philly’s more likely to move this pick to a team that does.  With all that in mind, here’s a something less than confident prediction that Exum ends up in Philly.

4. magicJoel Embiid.  Just weeks ago, many of the NBA’s shrewdest talent evaluators had concluded that Embiid had a legitimate chance to be something along the lines of Hakeem Olajuwon.  Don’t understimate the significance of that comp.  Hakeem’s a top 15 all-timer.  Given that projection, we know that the potential reward is tremendous.

About that risk…Some have suggested that Magic GM Rob Hennigan lacks the job security to swing for the fences knowing the Embiid won’t play next year.  It may be the case that the organization lacks the patience to wait on Embiid.  Even so, however, Embiid would remain an asset more valuable than anyone else the Magic could select here.  We’ll bet that Hennigan can envision that value growing exponentially as the team releases information about Embiid’s remarkable recovery.

jazz5. Aaron Gordon.  With Hayward, Kanter, and Favors, the Jazz don’t lack for talent up front.  By contrast, Burke & Burcs don’t inspire confidence that Utah has its backcourt of the future.  Marcus Smart, and perhaps even Elfrid Payton make sense here then.  And with suspiciously little noise about Utah’s regard for either, don’t be surprised if one of those two gets snapped up here.

Utah has other needs too though. Hayward’s a restricted free agent, and even assuming he sticks around, neither he nor anyone else on the roster checks the ‘dynamic perimeter athlete’ box essential to succeed in the league today.  Enter Aaron Gordon. A special athlete and by many accounts, an even harder worker and better person, the knock on Gordon is that he can’t shoot, which makes him somewhat of a 3/4 tweener.

So what. He’ll give every wing in the league fits, and has the frame and athleticism to become an effective undersized post defender a la Shawn Marion.  The Marion comp. mostly is a good one.  Gordon’s every bit the versatile athlete, and Marion didn’t arrive with the skills he employed to great effect in Phoenix.  From the fact that Marion developed a reliable – if ugly – stroke from 3 and a devastating floater, it doesn’t follow that Gordon will too.  Similar buzz surrounded Joel Alexander.  We know how that worked out.  Nonetheless, I’m persuaded that Gordon possesses the drive and enthusiasm for the game to make the most of his considerable gifts. That make’s him the pick here.

6. celticsJulius Randle. The gossip columns suggest that Danny Ainge would be none to pleased to see his guy, Aaron Gordon, snatched up by Utah. Maybe that’s right.  In any event, if you take a step back and consider where we’ve been with this draft class, I think you’ll agree that Randle’s been underrated. Once considered a talent on par with Wiggins and Parker, Randle’s fallen victim to the TMI curse.  That is, his exposure at Kentucky subjected him to a level of scrutiny that late risers and lesser knowns like Vonleh and Payton have been able to avoid.

He’s not Tim Duncan. We can say that for certain. Mostly, however, the seemingly tepid market for Randle lacks a logical rationale.  He’s the best post-scorer to declare for the draft since 2010.  And at 6’9″, concerns about his ability to finish over length at that next level seem misplaced.  We know he’s a rebounding machine and a plus athlete; both assets will translate in the NBA.  Put differently, he’s a helluva get at #6.   As a Lakers fan, I hope I’m wrong, but I think Danny comes away with a steal in Julius Randle.

lakerslogo7. Elfrid Payton. If Randle’s still on the board, he’s the guy.  LA has zero talented bigs, and few are available free-agency.  Even if they prefer a guard then, the comparably teeming list of guards LA could sign this summer makes Randle the better choice.  Left to choose from Smart, Payton, Vonleh, and a dark horse yet to reveal himself, I think it’s Payton or Smart.  Either would provide a major upgrade at the point in LA.  And as much as LA needs bigs, I’m not sold on Vonleh.

Smart’s the more obvious choice.  You know what you’re getting – tenacity, leadership, great defense, and explosive finishing – and it’s pretty damn good.  But questions persist about both his shooting and play-making ability.  On a team that’s looking to reload, Payton’s closer resemblance to a pure point guard becomes more valuable.  Considering that he fought Smart to a draw in several workouts, we give Payton the edge.

That’s assuming LA keeps the pick. Reports have them considering Philly’s offer of either MCW straight up, or MCW + Thaddeus Young for this pick. The former’s not happening: MCW’s value doesn’t match the allure of the unknown represented by both Smart and Payton.   The latter package, with Young, is more intriguing. I think LA pulls the trigger on that one to get both an infusion of youth and a plug n’ play vet to run with Kobe.

8. kingsMarcus Smart. This pick could be on the move too, as the Kings have dangled it to Detroit in exchange for Josh Smith.  If they keep it, the Kings snap-up whomever remains between Smart and Payton. They’ve needed a point-guard and a leader for years, and fortunately, either guard will bring both attributes to the table and provide a much needed check on Boogie’s influence.

hornets9.  Noah Vonleh.  Overrated in my book, Vonleh’s nonetheless a steal at #9. MJ will be tempted by the more dynamic likes of Gary Harris and Nick Stauskas before settling on Vonleh, who’d provide the spacing and shot blocking necessary to compliment Big Al Jefferson.

76ers10. Gary Harris. If Philly winds up taking Exum in the above scenario, it could really use some froncourt help. (That’s doubly true if they move Thaddeus Young.) Trouble is, all of the most talented bigs are off the board here, and while he’d be a good fit, Adrienne Payne is a reach at #10.  At this stage in the rebuilding process, the better bet is that Philly goes for the best player available. That’s Gary Harris, who’s shooting, athleticism, and hard-nosed defense could help any team.

nugs11. Nick Stauskas. Let us know if you have the slightest clue what, if anything, is Denver’s plan at the moment.  One minute they’re shopping almost everyone on the roster to make a run at Kevin Love, another offering many of the same pieces to move up in the draft, and most recently, acquiring Aaron Affalo.  That acquisition signals a win now imperative.  Yet, Denver’s no more likely to contend anytime soon with than without Affalo.

At least this much is certain: no one who’ll be left at #11 will make the sort of splash they appear anxious to make.  On a roster that has few glaring holes and fewer strengths, Stauskas would provide immediate punch off the bench and form an intriguing back court trio with Lawson and Affalo.

magic12. Shabazz Napier. Like so many others, this pick too is rumored to have been extensively shopped.  Since we’ve given them Embiid at #4, Orlando needs someone who can contribute now.  Add to that the non-secret that the Magic covet a point guard, and Shabazz Napier makes a ton of sense here.  The tournament darling has seen his stock rise recently, and while he’s certainly no franchise savior, a backcourt of Oladipo and Napier gives Orlando a solid foundation upon which to build.

twolves13. Zach Lavine. So much depends on what they’re doing with and who they’re getting for Kevin Love.  If it’s David Lee and Klay Thompson, perhaps a full-scale rebuild isn’t an absolute must.  Alternatively, if it’s Boston’s draft picks, Minnesota likely would value potential over immediate performance.  What’s becoming increasingly clear is that the Wolves aren’t going to be signing a superstar free agent anytime soon.  Like most midwestern teams, they’ll need to draft one.   Zach Lavine’s raw.  No questioning that.  With a 46″ vertical that correlates with generally off the charts athleticism, however, Lavine’s one of perhaps just five or six players in this draft talented enough to become a superstar.  At #13, with Love on the way out, that’s more than enough for the Wolves.

suns 14. Rodney Hood.  If you hadn’t noticed, Doug McDermott continues to slide on our board.  Why hasn’t anyone grabbed the draft’s best shooter who’s also a quite underrated athlete?   Well, Doug won’t be defending 3s or 4s with much success.  He’s closer to Ryan Anderson than Kyle Korver, but won’t defend or rebound like Anderson.  This doesn’t mean that he won’t be a valuable contributor at the next level.  Rather, it speaks to this draft’s incredible depth.

Enough about the guy Phoenix won’t draft.  In most draft’s a 6’9″ athlete with a sweet stroke and Duke pedigree goes closer to 5 than 15.  He’s a better shooting Gerald Green, which makes him something of a poor man’s Paul George.   With Dragic and a presumably returning Bledsoe in the fold, Hood gives the Suns a dynamic perimeter trio.

hawks15.  T.J. Warren. There’s nothing wrong with DeMarre Carrol.  He’s a solid two way player at the 3.   And I could envision him retaining his starting spot, with T.J. Warren providing some much needed scoring punch off the bench.  Under the radar, Warren’s nonetheless one of the top three to four scorers in tis draft.  That he’s still available here is a testament to the depth of this draft, which we’ve not depleted just yet.

bulls16. Tyler Ennis. Once considered a legitimate contender for the title of best point guard in the draft, Ennis has seen his stock tumble on the heels of less than impressive showings in workouts against Smart and Payton, among others.  Having watched every Cuse game last season, I came away with the strong conviction that Ennis should return for his sophomore season.  My rationale?  The very same factors that caused him to struggle against imposing defenders like Smart and Payton.  Namely, Ennis’s frame remains slight, and while both his speed and shooting are respectable, neither is sufficiently dangerous to compensate for that deficiency.  Of course, with agents whispering lottery into his ear, the odds of such a return were always unlikely.

At #8, you might be disappointed with Ennis.  Rarely at #16, however, do you find still available the most poised, polished playmaker with considerable upside remaining to be tapped. Given the question marks that surround Rose’s health, and the declining effectiveness of Hinrich, Chicago should be thrilled to snag an immediate upgrade off the bench, and potentially its future starter at the point.

celtics17. Clint Capella.  Another big man after selecting Randle with the 6th pick?  Indeed it is.  Consider this: Randle, Olynyck, and Sullinger all share variations of the same skill-set.  None is a rim protector.  So adding Capella doesn’t duplicate, but rather diversifies Boston’s big man rotation. Still quite raw, it’s his upside – think Serge Ibaka – that Ainge won’t be able to resist.

suns18. Dario Saric. The Suns get a top 10 talent at #18, thanks in large part to Saric’s recent inking of a deal with a team in Turkey that will keep him out of the NBA for at least two years.   With 3 picks in the first round, Phoenix has the luxury of stashing a tremendous talent overseas for a couple of years.

bulls19. Adrienne Payne.  Chicago would be elated with this scenario, as the guy many have pegged them to select at #16 remains available at #19.  Payne provides not just frontcourt depth behind Noah and Gibson, but a unique skillset – knock-down shooting and bruising post play – that promises to give Thibs some intriguing options to employ.  What’s more, he’d enable the Bulls to amnesty Boozer without missing a beat.

Rapid Fire

With picks exchanging hands faster than this writer can keep up with, I’m inclined to take the path of least resistance from #20 forward. (It doesn’t hurt that I have valuable insights to offer for perhaps just five or so of the remaining prospects.

raptors20. Jordan Clarkson (aka “Lowry Insurance”).

thunder21. P.J. Hairston. If the WCF proved nothing else, OKC needs more scoring options.

raptors22. Jerami Grant.  All signs point to a precipitous decline for the stock of a guy many thought would be a lottery pick not so long ago.  I don’t get it.  What exactly is the difference between he and Kawhi Leonard coming into the draft? Toronto gets a steal.

jazz23. Mitch McGary.  They’ll love him in Salt Lake City.  I decline to elaborate.

hornets24. James Young.  Charlotte gets help on the wing, which it sorely needs since MKG’s shot appears irreparable at this point. This’d be a great draft for MJ, which means you should bet on the Hornets selecting anyone else here.

rockets25. Joseph Nukic.  Lose one foreign center, replace him with another.

miami26. Patrick Young.  Assuming Lebron returns to Miami, he can’t go another season as the Heat’s best interior defender. Young could assume that role on day one.

suns27. Johnny O’Bryant.  He’s big, and he can play.  So he can’t be any worse than Alex Len, right?

clips28. Jarnell Stokes.  He replaces Hedu Turkoglu.  We feel safe calling that an upgrade.

thunder29. Kyle Anderson.  After being picked apart by the pudgy Frenchman, OKC gets its own version of Boris Diaw.

spurs30. Cleanthony Early.  Touched by Midas, expect Early to be an all-time great.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 Playoff Revelations: #7 Lebron Catches a Break

NBA: Finals-Miami Heat at San Antonio Spurs Rarely has the King fell to a muted response.  As we close the book on the 2013-2014 season, both knee jerking and measuredly reacting to what we’ve just witnessed, the masses have left their pitchforks at home.  No calls for heads. Few references to The Decision.  And fewer questions still about Lebron’s bona fides, his credentials apparently sufficiently burnished – if not unassailable – to deter anyone serious from venturing into subjects ripe for scrutiny little more than a year ago.

Reputation all the same, Lebron remains a divisive figure.  It’s more than a little surprising then to see such widespread reluctance  to point the finger at Lebron following his third Finals loss – this one in just 5 games.  Ever the skeptic, I nonetheless see four factors that justify cutting Lebron some slack.

1. The toll of three straight Finals appears to be  insurmountable.  Perhaps that’ s why Jordan never so much as defended either of his three-peats.  Numerous accounts of the Bulls’ march to the 1997 title reveal that MJ, Pippen, & Co. needed to muster everything they had to inch past Indiana before again foiling the Jazz.  At the peak of their powers, Shaq and Kobe watched their shot at a fourth straight title rim out with Horry’s would’ve been game (and I’d argue series) winning three point attempt in a pivotal Game 5 loss to the Spurs. Here’s a look at the rare miss from Horry in the clutch that spoiled an epic Lakers comeback (jump to the 10:07 mark for the miss):

Hardened by its loss to rival Boston in the 2008 Finals, LA won handily in 2009, and had just enough in the tank to survive a war of attrition against Boston in 2010. Returning much the same cast, in 2011, the Mavs sweep of the Lakers made clear the well had run dry.  Finally, this season marked the first time the Spurs reached consecutive finals during a run spanning 15 years and producing 5 titles.

A feat that eluded Mike and Scottie, Kobe and Shaq, and Timmy and Pop, there’s good precedent for what increasingly appears to be an NBA rule:  3-straight trips to the finals leaves even the best teams depleted – short on energy both physical and mental – and poised for defeat.

For Lebron, that’s both a compelling excuse and a bad omen.  Falling short in year 4, he’s in good company.  But none among that elite company played in a 4th straight finals. (The fact that the Heat did so is less a point of pride than it is an indictment of the embarrassingly weak Eastern Conference from which this eminently vulnerable Miami team emerged.)  Unless we see substantial turnover on Miami’s roster, good logic suggests that Lebron, Wade, and Bosh will not show up to camp reinvigorated, but with legs heavier than ever.

2.  The NBA Glitterati Loves Them Some Spurs.  It’s a feel good story. Can’t deny that. Since its last title in 2007, San Antonio has been written off time and time again. (Having long felt that the Spurs lacked the firepower to win the title, I’m among the culprits who repeatedly predicted its imminent decline. While still picking bits of crow from my teeth, rather defiantly, I’d point out that I’ve been right 6 out of 7 times.)

Plus, the Spurs snatched defeat from the jaws of victory last year, and deserve tremendous credit for finding motivation in a defeat that would’ve sent lesser teams into a downward spiral. I suspect that it is a second factor, however, to which the Glitterati (i.e. nearly every famous talking head, and the vast majority of analysts and columnists at ESPN/CNNSI/CBS Sports/Yahoo Sports etc.) so supinely allows to color their coverage –showering praise on the Spurs with nauseating frequency.  The Spurs play the right way.

spurs title
Not pictured, but equally jubilant: Mark Stein, Henry Abbott, Bill Simmons, Zach Lowe, Steve Kerr, & Reggie Miller.

It starts with Pop.  The innovative, intricate system he’s designed and perfected over 15 years simply is awe-inspiring.  Aesthetically appealing, indeed it is, with precision passing and finely tuned sets underlying the offense’s almost artistic flair. millsdiaw But it’s the egalitarian nature of the system – one that provides opportunities without regard to contracts, fame, accolades, age, or otherwise – that so enthuses the Glitterati.

One night belongs to Boris Diaw, the next to Patty Mills.  This is how basketball should be played. Oh, and lest we forget, Pop’s easily the league’s best coach, not to mention it’s most lovable coaching personality. You can’t help but like the guy, and respect the hell out him too.

Inevitably, the conversation turns to Duncan. So unselfish. And not just with the ball or the credit. In case you didn’t know before the playoffs began, you must have caught one of literally dozens of references to the fact that Duncan, ever the consummate teammate, took less ($10 million) to remain with the Spurs than the market surely would’ve borne.

(Sidebar: What are we supposing that to have been anyway? Duncan’s still lethal in the most critical games and especially so in crunch time, but he’s been a part time player since signing that deal. Are we to believe that dozens of teams were lining up 4 year, $60 million contracts to take him out of his familiar confines? That strikes me as doubtful. If not $15 million, perhaps the bidding would’ve concluded at $12 — something like a 3 year $36 million deal. In that case, Timmy gave up $2 million a year. A nice gesture, to be sure, but that hardly makes him the Mother Teresa of aging superstars.)

Finally, there’s the irresistible David & Goliath narrative. Haling from the humble, comparatively small town of San Antonio, the organically cultivated Spurs found themselves pitted against the glamorous Miami Heat, a team which, for all its merits, remains a product of collusion and manipulation. The Spurs dismantling of the hyped Heat in 5, we’re told, is a testament to the notions that substance trumps style, and that slow and steady roster-building, shrewdly executed within the traditional confines of the draft and free-agency, still bests an ensemble of superstars who took a shortcut in route to two rings.

Blue-collar meets sophisticated, old-school humility fused with a cutting edge offense, a roster with roots on nearly every continent that calls the something less than cosmopolitan State of Texas home —  it’s hard to blame the Glitterati for tripping over each other in a race to top the last gushing analysis with lofty, borderline delusional proclamations about the Spurs place in history.

We probably can’t count Lebron amongst those inclined to join the entrenched and expanding bandwagon.  In any event, he should be grateful for the chorus that continues to drown out his third Finals loss in five tries.

3. Lebron Delivered.  In defeat, this time Lebron looked nothing like the guy who nearly imploded (again) against Boston in the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals.  Nor did he resemble the Lebron who looked alternately lost and afraid – so much so that he gladly tossed Wade the keys – against Dallas in a finals that  raised legitimate doubt that Lebron would ever develop the mental scruples to realize his unworldly potential.  In what now seems like ancient history, that same rattled Lebron returned against a geriatric Celtics team until KG and Pierce pushed him one step too far. lebronfinals Having conquered his demons in route to winning his first title, they returned during the 2013 Finals.  The Spurs defense sagged steps away from him, daring him to shoot and testing his confidence.  Once again, a rattled Lebron threatened to torpedo the Heat’s playoff hopes.  Then, the 2nd half of Game 6 happened.  Freed from whatever mental shackles had been holding him back, an unchained Lebron dominated the remainder of the series.  He hasn’t looked back since.

Lebron turned in 5 stellar performances in the 5 game series. He brought his disruptive, versatile defense, and was reliability brilliant on the other end of the floor.  If we’re picking nits, Lebron didn’t turn in a single performance for the ages — a 45+ point game in which he proved singularly capable of determining the outcome.

By any measure Lebron hardly was part of the problem.  That distinction goes to Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, and several once were stalwart contributors (Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem, raise your hands) with whom age has clearly caught up.  Unsurprisingly then, “Lebron needs more help” is a popular refrain amongst those dissecting Miami.

True enough.

Boston Celtics v Miami Heat, Game 3 Wade and Bosh are easier targets.  Playing DH most of the season proved to have diminishing returns for Wade.  With seasons of evidence, the Wade debate now focuses not on the reversibility of his substantial decline, but rather on  how much longer he can stay relevant.

And if you’ve come to rely on All-Star level contributions from Chris Bosh, you’re either his relative, agent, self-loathing, and/or routinely disappointed.  Despite his 9-time All Star status, Bosh is no All-Star big man.  While in the land of the blind (the East) the man wcith one good eye is king, Bosh’s exclusion from the West’s roster wouldn’t register a blip — Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Z-Bo, Tim Duncan, Ibaka, and Marc Gasol represent 6 markedly superior western bigs who didn’t even make the roster. Point is, while Bosh is a nice piece and a plus starter, the idea that Miami has or ever had a Big 3 is bunk.

This isn’t to say that Lebron’s been going it alone.  He’s had help, help that he picked, no less.  At times Miami’s surrounded him with talent definitively superior to casts flanking Jordan, Kobe, and Duncan in title runs.  At this juncture, however, analysts rightly point the finger at Lebron’s diminished support before questioning the King himself.  A matchup against the well-oiled machine that is the Spurs – interchangeable parts and all – burnished their case — putting the spotlight on deficiencies Miami had mostly managed to cover-up.

Weeks ago, adding Melo to the Miami mix sounded like a surefire way to lockup the next three titles.  Now, it seems closer to the sort of addition the Heat need to avoid prime wasting seasons reminiscent of Kobe’s 2005-2007 Lakers or nearly all of KG’s T-Wolves teams.  With Lebron at the peak of his powers, Miami doesn’t need to land another star.  Trimming at the margins here, and a savvy addition there could well be enough.  But return much the same cast? That won’t produce a different outcome.  The Finals established that much.

4. The Spurs are a Faceless Foe.  It’s no accident that the Spurs fly under the national radar.  Pop orchestrates the team’s low altitude flight. Why be the villain other teams seek to slay when you can be the NBA’s nice guys whom everyone respects? The Spurs reputation as anything but a hated rival deflected attention from Lebron’s loss.

Consider, for instance, that Lebron had lost to Durant and OKC.   The headlines practically write themselves: “Durant eclipses Lebron,” “2nd Fiddle No More,” and “How KD Beat King James,” are among the litany of possibilities.  To be sure, Lebron would have faced scrutiny of a degree thought left behind after the summer of 2011.

Losing to the Spurs is like losing to an entity.  Duncan didn’t out duel Lebron.  Nor, for all of his surprisingly stellar play did Kawhi Leonard.  Without the heavy weight matchup, it becomes easier to rationalize Lebron’s failure as the result of having been outnumbered, undone  by relentless tag-teams of lesser knowns.

Rest easy Lebron.  They won't pin this one on you.
Rest easy Lebron. They won't pin this one on you.

And so the story is not Lebron.  It’s the historically crippling weight of three straight Finals, the inspiring small-town Spurs’ feel good return to glory, the withering of Lebron’s most important teammates, and with the numbers stacked against him, the guy who did a lot of damage before succumbing to the San Antonio machine.  For once, Lebron’s not the fall guy.

The Day I Scooped Zach Lowe

We got scooped?

We got scooped?

 

Today, Grantland’s Zach Lowe breaks down Lance Stephenson’s free agency appeal – without so much as a tip of the hat in my direction.  The nerve of this guy.  Kidding…sort of.

In keeping with his style, Lowe’s piece leans heavily on his scrutiny of isolated game tape (and drawing on snapshots) to make his points — in our view, points readily apparent without the footage.  However solid the analysis, the overkill is akin to tryptophan to this reader.  (It’s just not my style.  But hey, different strokes for different folks.) When he’s not attempting to burnish his analytical bona fides, Lowe makes several salient points.  Definitely worth a read.

Most importantly, it’s the first time I’ve beat him to the punch. Here’s to hoping it won’t be the last.

10 Playoff Revelations: #8

© basketballwallpapers.com

© basketballwallpapers.com

ICYMI, check out #10 and #9 here


#8 Lance Is Insane. About that Contract…

Somewhat reluctant to spill more ink on Lance after the media’s egregious over coverage of his sideshow, I can’t ignore the significant implications of Lance’s baffling behavior against Miami. To briefly summarize, Lance’s attempts to rattle Lebron most prominently featured blowing into his ear and slapping him in the face. Lost in all the Lebron-Lance hoopla was Stephenson’s most egregious violation — a reckless (and I suspect malicious) open handed, full force blow directly to the grill of an unsuspecting Norris Cole.

Yet, I can’t help but find Stephenson’s comments to the media more troubling than his antics.  Among the confounding, borderline schitzophrenic comments were (1) a flagrantly hypocritical proclamation that Lebron’s trash talk revealed weakness; (2) an admission that not only had his antics proved ineffective, but also detrimental to his team, and (3) on again-off again proclamations of his utmost respect for Lebron. His presence during media sessions grew eerily similar to Ron Artest’s nonsensical post game babble sessions.   It seems like he’s a few apples short of a dozen.

Moving forward, the more compelling storyline is the fallout.  To say that Lance cost himself millions oversimplifies the ripple effects of Stephenson’s antics. Conventional wisdom in the blogosphere holds that Lance’s foray into the “Tyson Zone” will play out something like this: (1) reasonably expecting a bidding war for his services to yield something along the lines of a 4 year, $50 million contract in April, Lance greets a tepid market that values him far less than it had months ago; (2) he returns slightly humbled to Indiana seeking a bit less — call it $7-9 million — only to find that door closed too; (3) Lance stops tuning out his agent, and is made to realize that he needs to sign a 1 yr. “make good” contract with a stable organization (perhaps Indy) for a fraction of the pay day he expected and many had forecasted.

We simply cannot agree. It’s not that simple. Specifically, seven factors complicate the analysis, the interplay of which suggests something quite different from the popularized scenario above.

1. Lance played very well throughout the playoffs.

2. He’s just 23, and has dramatically improved each season.

3. His teammates don’t like him.

4. The Pacers need him, already short on playmakers with Lance in the lineup.

5. Since Indiana owns his Bird rights, it can exceed the salary cap to give Lance a lucrative deal.  Unless Larry takes a wrecking ball to the roster, Indiana will be so close to the cap that any would be replacement(s) must be enticed by near minimum deals and the charm of Indianapolis.

6. After three straight exits at the hands of Miami, Indiana must decide whether this team can take the next step as currently comprised.

7. Roughly half of the league’s teams will have signficant cap space this summer.  With so many dollars available for andunderwhelming free agent class, we’re primed for a summer of head scratching contracts awarded to players far less talented (albeit, far less volatile too) than Lance.

Those factors create an unpredictable environment.  Widespread chatter has teams that had intended to break the bank for Lance divulging that they’re no longer interested in the 8th Grader — at any price. Take that with several grains of salt. It behooves GMs speaking off the record to dampen a coveted player’s market.  (Marc Cuban, we’re talking about you.) For several reasons, I’m not buying that Lance has irreparably destroyed his value.


Young talent almost always trumps behavioral issues.  To be sure, 4 years and $50 million no longer seems especially plausible. As a 23 year old dynamic athlete and tested playoff performer with room to improve and mature, Lance’s phone will be ringing the moment free-agency kicks off.  At 23, I can’t imagine blowing in Lebron’s ear.  That doesn’t mean I didn’t do dozens of things requiring roughly commensurate stupidity.  People grow up.

lance-lebron

A long track record demonstrates that teams are willing to gamble on young, troubled talent. If history is any indicator, several teams will talk themselves into taking a flyer on an athletic 23 year old playmaker, dangerous shooter, and effective defender of three positions. Which brings us to our next point…


Lance is hardly the NBA’s first head case. Nor does his behavior necessarily warrant equal, let alone more condemnation than any amongst dozens of exploits from seasons’ past. Here’s a quick and incomplete lesson in NBA head case history: Ron Artest and The Malice in the Palace requires no elaboration, so I’ll simply remind folks that he came frighteningly close to decapitating James Harden.

Tales of the Jailblazers’ exploits could fill a novel, and a good one at that.  A synopsis could include the time Sheed followed a ref into the parking lot, which seems chivalrous in light of Z-Bo’s sucker punch that broke Ruben Patterson’s eye socket and sent Z-Bo into hiding at Dale Davis’s place to avoid Patterson’s murderous rage, which seems innocent given the hit Isaiah Rider put out a hit on Dikembe Mutombo during an All-Star Weekend (seriously), which seems smart considering Damon Stoudemire’s arrest following an attempt to get through airport security with weed wrapped in tinfoil. (Really, TINFOIL?!?)

zbo

Nick “The Quick” Van-Exel shoved a ref into the scorer’s table, Rodman head-butted one, kicked a camera man, harassed Karl Malone with antics that make Lance seem like an amateur, and likely committed thousands of infractions we’ve yet to learn of.

PJ ChokeSprewell choked PJ. Like seriously asphyxiated the man. The good fortune that enabled him to return to the league and make millions shortly thereafter might’ve, but didn’t prevent him from citing the need to feed his family as grounds for rejecting a deal paying him $7.5 million annually long after his prime.

Ahead of his time, Vernon Maxwell raced into the stands and pummelled fans when Ron was still a kid, Arenas nearly incited the NBA’s first duel with a teammate, J.R. Smith had to be weened off his habit of untying opponents shoelaces, and in a fit of extreme hunger, Chris Kaman ate a 3 year old child.  (Okay, so one of those tales might not be true.)  You get the point. Lance is hardly the league’s first head case.

Nor is Lance a pioneer in agitating superstars.  Nothing he did to Lebron belongs in the same stratosphere as Raja Bell’s violent clothesline of Kobe in the 2006 playoffs. And his antics weren’t much, if at all worse than Matt Barnes attempts to rattle the Mamba.  See for yourself.

Still love that stone cold reaction by Kobe.  Miss that dude.

Finally, before lamenting sharing the locker room with Lance, Paul George and Roy Hibbert should carefully consider this tidbit from the deeply disturbing files: Delonte West had several illicit encounters with then teammate Lebron’s mom. It could be worse, fellas.

So you’re in company Lance.  Not good company, but company all the same.  All of this is to say that the clamor about the dire straights he’ll encounter on the market this summer have been greatly exaggerated.  He’s not the commodity that he was before falling under intense scrutiny, but Lance will get paid. And it won’t be a pittance. How much and by whom?  Well that brings us to our next point.


The Ball’s in Larry’s Court. The good news (depending on one’s perspective) is that Lance now appears far more likely to return to Indy than he did a few months ago. If Larry wants him back, Lance’s stock has taken a hit sufficient to make him affordable.  (Count me amongbird those suspecting that anything over $8 million/yr. would be too rich for the small market Pacers, a figure that likely would’ve meant paying the luxury tax.) Of course, the bad news is that The Legend will have to grapple with several issues before deciding whether he wants Lance back at any price.  But that deliberation is of secondary importance.

First, Larry needs to seriously scrutinize Indy’s big picture.Three straight eliminations at the hands of Lebron inspire little confidence that the Pacers, as constructed, stand poised to unseat their bitter rivals with or without Lance. There are few, if any realistic moves Indy could make this summer to change that dynamic.

Hibbert’s stock is at an all time low and his massive contract increasingly unpalatable.  Concerns about his mobility, consistency, and mental toughness are legitimate. David West is great — he’s the Pacers’ rock.  He’s also on the wrong side of 30.  Once considered a steal, George Hill and his $8 million annual salary now leave Pacers fans cursing the day Indy swapped Kawhi for the mediocre combo guard who does everything adequately, but nothing especially well. That leaves Paul George, and little else.

Given those circumstances, it’d be hard to fault Larry if he concludes that his team is better served cleaning house by letting Lance walk and working the phones to see if he can jump start a rebuilding process by finding takers for some or all of Hibbert, West, and Hill. Yes, Lance could partner with George to pillar a rebuild, but if you’re starting from scratch, why not keep the books clean to add a more reliable piece?

Don’t be surprised, however, if Larry perceives the glass to be half-full. After all, the Pacers have made three straight playoff runs.  George has only scratched the surface, Hibbert could regain the form that made him perhaps the league’s most coveted rim protector, West still has several good years in front of him, and Hill, well it wouldn’t be an especially tall order to upgrade there (C.J. Watson might be better), even if the market yields few takers.

Supposing Larry keeps the faith in the roster he’s built, Lance is indispensable to its continued success.  Maybe that’s not literally true.  The more accurate, nuanced assertion is that a player like Lance is indispensable.  Here’s why: Lance is the only player of his caliber the salary cap allows Indiana to pay.  For instance, however preferable, Indy can’t take the $8 million marked for Lance and give it to Kyle Lowry.  And if Lance walks, so too does Indy’s only viable playmaker and perimeter stopper not named Paul George.

The list of potential replacements includes no player who can fill Lance’s shoes as both a playmaker and a stopper.  One can imagine Larry cringing at the notion that he’ll need to sign two guys like Jordan Crawford, Marshon Brooks, Ben Gordon, Beno Udrih, Chris Singleton. Perhaps a Danny Granger reunion is in the cards. With that reality informing his Lance calculus, there’s good reason to think that “Born Ready” could very well return a much higher paid Pacer next season.

Reading the tea leaves, it seems more likely than not that Indy keeps it’s problem child.  For the sake of tossing around numbers, I’d estimate that there’s about a 65% chance that Lance returns.  To speculate further, I’ll call it a 3 year, $24 million deal, with a team option on the third year. I’m a lot more confident that if the Pacers don’t pay him that, someone else will.


Competition will Emerge.  No fewer than 10, and more likely 13-14 teams have significant cap space this summer.  That of course includes the perennially moribund Jazz, Sixers, Cavs, Magic, and Pistons. Each will have $20 million + to go on an ill advised spending spree.   The Lakers, Hornets, and Suns likewise are guaranteed to have more than $20 million to splurge if they feel so inclined.  The Hawks and Bucks may also join the bidding with $13 million each at their disposal.

The existence of this pic isn't helping my case.

The existence of this pic isn’t helping my case.

Several more teams are likely to enter the fray: the Mavs can easily generate major cap space by finessing Dirk’s deal (like $15-25 million major); Chicago can free up roughly $10 million by amnestying Boozer; Boston will have $9 million if it let’s Avery Bradley walk; Toronto could have $20 million or so if it let’s Lowry and co. walk; and the Spurs can open up somewhere around $8-10 million by cajoling Timmy and Tony to take team friendly deals.

That’s a lot of money, especially for a weak unrestricted free-agent class whose  top 10 looks something like this: (1) Carmelo, (2) Kyle Lowry, (3) Marcin Gortat, (4) Pau Gasol, (5) Luol Deng, (6) Spencer Hawes, (7) Trevor Ariza, (8) Channing Frye (9) Darren Collision, and (10) Paul Pierce’s corpse.  (The top heavy restricted class helps to some extent, but since team’s can, and most often do match competing offers, it’s not likely to take a huge bite out of the hundreds of millions in spending power this summer.  Enticing restricted free agents include Eric Bledsoe, Gordon Hayward, Greg Monroe, and Isaiah Thomas)

Cast those facts aside, pundits would suggest.  Lance is persona non grata everywhere.  Don’t buy it for a second.  No fewer than five of the following 14 teams will have serious interest in Lance.


 

Out of the Running

“We Won’t be Needing His Number”

1. Jazz. They play in Salt Lake City. Need I say more?

2. Cavs. With Dion and Kyrie struggling to share the ball and reportedly having already come to blows, well, Lance isn’t the answer here.

Three's a crowd?

Three’s a crowd?

“He Could Help, but We’re Rebuilding Around Impressionable Youth”

The same logic applies to all three…I’d be surprised, but not floored, if one of them defied it.

3. Sixers

4. Magic

5. Milwaukee


 Wild Cards

“We’re Not Sure About the Fit…Keep in Touch if the Price Drops”

6. Phoenix.  With only one ball, Dragic and Bledsoe would struggle to incorporate Lance. That said, Phoenix is overloaded with assets, and would benefit from locking up a third high caliber player and competitor.

7. Boston.  Rondo might kill Lance, but Rondo might be on his way out.  Danny’s made stranger moves.

8. Detroit. Detroit’s short on talented wings, lost it’s draft pick, and has Van Gundy to regulate Lance’s behavior. Then again, Andre Drummond needs more touches — a backcourt of Jennings and Lance won’t accomplish that (to say the least — at least Van Gundy’s facial expressions would be priceless), and Detroit already spent big on Josh Smith and Jennings.

Woe is Andre

Woe is Andre

“We’ll Take that Number, But Don’t Hold Your Breath Waiting for Our Call”

9. Atlanta. Who knows what the hell Atlanta’s doing?  Apparently Horford’s on the market and Milsap might be too. Korver’s still the league’s best shooter, and Teague looked damn good against Indy.  On a team lacking young talent, perhaps they check on Lance.

10. Toronto.  Who knows what the hell Toronto’s doing?  Unlike Atlanta, whose unpredictability has an err of cluelessness, with Masai at the helm, everyone’s in the dark as to what the shadowy savant has up his sleeve.  Don’t be shocked if it’s Lance.


Realistic Destinations

“We Like You — Just Give Us Some Time”

11. Lakers. LA’s still formulating a long term plan, and thus may or may not spend big this offseason.  LA needs to see whose available at #7 before addressing free-agency.  If they take a guard like Marcus Smart, Zach Lavine, or Gary Harris, adding Lance makes little sense.  But if it’s say Randle, Gordon, or Vonleh, LA could use to upgrade on the perimeter with a young, two way player who Kobe just might be able to keep in line.  We know LA would like to preserve it’s cap space for next year.  What if they overpaid Lance on a one-year deal? Best offer: 1 yr., $12 million.

12. Chicago. The Bulls are rumored to be chasing Carmelo. If that pursuit fails, Lance could potentially thrive under Thib’s discipline. Best offer: 3 yrs., $27 million (team option on third year)

“Let’s Talk Dollars & Years”

13. Charlotte. MJ”s internal dialogue: “We made the playoffs! That mean’s we’re one piece away from the finals! Time to roll the dice baby…”You just know Jordan’s spending that money this summer — it’s burning a whole in his pocket right now. And if anyone can talk some sense into Lance, Mike thinks its him.

Celebrating the final piece of his championship puzzle

Celebrating the final piece of his championship puzzle

Actually, it does make some sense. After Kemba, Charlotte’s short on ball-handlers and playmakers.  That’s certainly not in MKG’s wheelhouse, but pair him with Lance, and you have a terrifying perimeter defense.  Al Jefferson’s been amazing, no questioning that.  Even still, the Hornets are missing a spark.  If nothing else, Lance is that, equally capable of energizing his teammates and igniting locker room turmoil. Best Offer: 4 yrs., $36  million (team option on fourth year)

14. Spurs. Surprised?  Don’t be, especially if Miami sends them home again.  Pop’s taken on character risks before (Stephen Jackson the most notorious example) and the Spurs desperately need a young playmaker to relieve some pressure from the aging Tony and Manu.  Pop could make this work.  He’d be the best thing that’s ever happened to Lance. Best Offer: 2 yrs., $18 million (player option on 2nd year)

Pop's already embraced the troubled soul

Pop’s already embraced the troubled soul

 

 

Zach Lavine Just Blew Up the Lottery

zachlavine

Working out for the Lakers, Lavine showed off a literally jaw dropping 46″ vertical. That’s good for a share of the record (matching DJ Stephens) and 2″ better than both Jordan and Lebron.  As the dust settles and the powers that be in the NBA begin to grasp the magnitude of Lavine’s awe-inspiring work out, someone, if not everyone is going to fall in love this this kid.   The Lakers – and its #7 pick – suddenly seem more like Lavine’s floor than ceiling.

A great player incredible verticals do not necessarily make (see Exhibit A, Career of DJ Stephens); further workouts, especially against guys competing for lottery selections (a list that may well include Marcus Smart, Gary Harris, Nick Stauskas, James Young, and potentially even Dante Exum) clearly could temper or further Lavine’s all but certain meteoric rise up teams’ draft boards.

We know he’s raw, but we also know that he possesses significant skills as a reliable ball handler to compliment an increasingly smooth – if not always fruitful – stroke from distance.  Oh, yeah, and not too many guys can jump like that. Lakers fans, cross your fingers. The local kid just might be Showtime in a bottle.

Take a look at this video from another workout….It doesn’t even look like he’s going hard, and his head’s at rim level.

10 Playoff Revelations: #9-10

2014-NBA-Playoffs-Bracket-BasketWallpapers.com-

© basketballwallpapers.com

 

On the heels of perhaps the most captivating first round in recent memory and a second round largely subjugated to the fury directed at Donald Sterling, we seemed primed for two epic showdowns in the Conference Finals.  Each series had its moments.  Ibaka’s compelling return salvaged what might well have been a sweep.  Indy was no more than a play or two away from heading to Miami up 2-0.   But neither delivered the late May drama we’d been anticipating.

Lance lost his damn mind, giving rise to a sideshow that all but swallowed the series itself.   For a team that had been there before, OKC perplexingly appeared to have regressed — its rudderless half court offense and mental lapses more befitting of a first time contender than a squad making its third trip to the Western Conference Finals in four years. (And no, this cannot simply be chalked up to the ill-conceived Harden trade, even if he undoubtedly would’ve helped.)

To be sure, each victor impressed.  You can’t help but marvel at what Pop has done with a team built around a trio of mostly once were stars, each of who continues to perform at an impressive (albeit, more or less short of elite), even defiant level.  And give credit where credit is due.  In the weakest conference the league has ever seen, Miami steamrolled its opponents.  That this was expected obscures the point: Lebron and Co. played the teams the drew, and demolished them.  Not much more you can ask from a team headed to its fourth straight finals.

On the cusp of the Finals, there’s every reason to believe that we’re in for the sort of show the finalists put on last season.  This year’s Finals features more juicy subplots.  Two, in particular, stand out.  First, Duncan & Co. seek to avenge the title they should’ve won last year in what may well be his last Finals (if the Spurs were coached by anyone else, I wouldn’t so hedge, or even flinch at the notion that this is the last run for an historically great team).  Stepping out of character, Duncan was an open book after defeating OKC.  He’s still seething about last June.  If Duncan’s emotions are rising to the surface, one can safely assume that San Antonio’s remaining fixtures have a little something extra to play for.  Second, Lebron and Wade stand just four wins from joining a very exclusive club.  Indeed, the three-peat is something of a measuring stick for great players and great teams alike.  It separates the greats from the transcendent.  Having expended relatively little energy as they cruised through the east, you can bet that the Heat will be marshaling everything they have in this final lap.

As of this reading, the smart money appears to be on the Spurs to prevail.   I can’t lose any more money or self-esteem betting against them, however, with that said, I suspect that many a talking-head are underrating the ceiling of a Miami team that hasn’t yet even tapped its reserve tank. We shall see.

Win or lose, Lebron will be in Miami, his reputation as the world’s best player in little to no jeopardy.   Unless a championship convinces Duncan to ride off into the sunset, Timmy, Pop, and the gang will be back to defy expectations and the science of aging next year.  No impending free agent on either team is likely to see a dramatic bump or decline in his stock based on this series.  Hence, we don’t really need to wait for the finals to unfold before analyzing what the playoffs have revealed.


Without further ado, let’s get to our Top 10 Revelations from the 2014 Playoffs.  Here’s #10 and #9…

#10 Bradley Beal & Damian Lillard Arrive

Every season, the playoffs introduce the casual fan to a few guys whose mesmerizing performances under the spotlight vault them at once into the mainstream and into the land of outsized expectations.  This year, the most raucus coming out parties were hosted by Beal and Lillard.  To the obsessive fan, those are household names whose potential is no secret at all.  Joining the ranks of dynamic guards, Beal and Lillard didn’t merely flash potential or inspire hopes of great things to come.  Those guys are ready today, and put the world on notice this spring.

Lillard’s performance will be remembered for his buzzer beater that sent Houston packing.  However indelible that image, for this writer, it won’t overshadow a conclusion almost inevitably drawn from observing Lillard’s entire performance:  Dude’s an alpha dog.  All NBA players have egos.  And most are hyper-competitive.  In a given year, the season rather organically identifies perhaps 7 or 8 players who have the moxie, the charisma, the chip, the ferocity,  the supreme confidence, and the elite skills to unleash those attributes necessary to become the alpha dog in a league inhabited by dozens of guys scratching and clawing for that position.  No, he’s not ready to win a title.  But he just put the Blazers on notice: their championship window is open.

Arriving to less than half the fanfare that greeted John Wall, Beal’s been developing rapidly in the shadow of his more celebrated backcourt partner.  More often than not, it was Beal, not Wall, who wanted, demanded, and deserved the ball to make a critical play in the Wizards’ 11 playoff games.  In a league devoid of 2-guard talent, Beal’s marksmanship and a top-tier athleticism immediately stand out.  But it’s his ball-handling that distinguishes him from the 3&D wings found on nearly every roster.  In that sense, Beal’s more Ray Allen than Reggie Miller.  That’s a good thing.   Beal doesn’t need elaborate screens to get his shot — he’ll go get it himself.  If it’s not there, Beal’s shown a knack for finding teammates with better looks.  It’s this combination – lethal scoring and play-making – that vaulted Beal past Wall as the D.C.’s go to guy down the stretch.  Watch him carve up Indiana’s vaunted D…


#9 D-Will’s Demise

In 2008, if I’d told you that Shaun Livingston would outplay D-Will in the 2014 playoffs, I’d venture to say that you’d have assumed that Livingston had realized his Penny Hardaway like potential.   Imagine your surprise if I’d explained how a series of devastating injuries had left Livingston a shell of the skinny kid whose potential seemed so limitless.  Moving past his teammate’s misfortunes, you’d probably want to know what the hell happened to this D-Will.

So that’s the before.  Candidly, I can’t find video that captures D-Will’s present condition following a precipitous decline.  D-Will was a superstar.

dwill

[Sidebar: To the snarky cadre who proclaim that comparing him to CP3 always was absurd, well, that's a great argument with the benefit ofhindsight.  But in 2008?  D-Will was really, really, good.  Better than CP3?  I won't say that.  I will say that they belonged in the same breath, and Paul's defenders are off base to act as if it were some sort of indignation. (I'm not saying their animus was 100% due to D-Will's inexplicably bad hair cut.  I'm also not saying that it wasn't.) Take it from a Lakers fan: in two playoff series, I was terrified of D-Will, who gave LA fits despite his markedly inferior supporting cast.]

Superstars don’t decline like that in their prime.  Sure, there are precedents.  Williams’s decline evokes memories of Stevie Franchise, who was indeed a franchise player until suddenly and seemingly prematurely, he lost it.  Ditto Stephon Marbury, but at least we know that his insanity had something to do with it.  T-Mac fell fast too, but not before accumulating a lot of miles, far more than D-Will had on his tires when he arrived in New Jersey.

So what’s the revelation?  We all knew about D-Will’s struggles before the playoffs.   I suspect that like me, many fans assumed he’d return to form at some point, that he’d had an off year, that he’d been adjusting to a new system, that he just needed to get healthy.   After these playoffs?  I’m afraid the D-Will who inspired such intense debates about point guard supremacy is gone for good.  No evidence suggests otherwise.  Here’s to the good ol’ days, Deron.

 

The Sanctimony of Doc Rivers

doc rivers

A leader of men. A rock amidst turmoil.  A player’s coach, and a gifted motivator.   Doc Rivers certainly is a gifted fellow and a premier NBA coach. Among the most astonishing of his talents is the ability to suspend reality — no matter how illogical, his perception of events becomes impenetrable by facts and reason alike.  Remarkable indeed.

Kendrick Perkins misses Game 7?  Rivers not so subtly implies that it cost his team the title, remarking, “[a]ll I know is those 5 guys are undefeated.”  That’s true in a literal sense.  But wait, you say, Andrew Bynum (then a far superior player) played the entire series on one leg, which limited not only his effectiveness but his time on the court to a paltry 16 min per game.   And it’s only fair to point out that it’s very possible, if not probable, that Doc’s 5 guys never win anything if Bynum had played at all during the 2008-2009 2008 Lakers-Celtics Finals.  It’s right about here that it’s appropriate to point out that the Lakers 5 of Fisher, Bryant, Ariza, Odom, and Gasol are also undefeated.  It’s also literally true that the championship winning Dallas five of Dirk, Kidd, Terry, Marion, and Chandler are undefeated.

Doc didn’t leave his myopia behind in Boston.  After last night’s loss to Oklahoma City, during the final minute of which Matt Barnes fouled Reggie Jackson, who consequently lost the ball out of bounds, Doc had this to say:

“It was our ball. Everybody knows it was our ball. Everybody knows it was our ball. The bottom line is, they thought it was a foul and they made up for it. In my opinion, let’s take away replay. Let’s take away the replay system. Because that’s our ball, we win the game. And we got robbed, because of that call. And it’s clear, everybody in the arena saw it. That’s our ball. Whether it was a foul or not — it was — but they didn’t call it.”

Right, it’s replay’s fault.   Someone might remind Doc that there is no scenario – replay or no replay – in which his team gets (let alone deserves) possession.  The officials called it OKC ball.  Without replay, OKC gets the ball.

With replay, it’s obvious that Barnes fouled Jackson, and fairly conclusive that this caused the ball to touch Jackson last before going out of bounds.  But, as Doc suggests, officials aren’t impervious to justice. Given the chance to review Barnes’ blatant foul in slow motion, as Doc accuses, the officials determined that it caused the ball to go out of bounds, and were thus willing to overlook the 90% likelihood that Jackson touched it last.  The problem with replay isn’t officials vigilance in overlooking the letter of the law to get the call right.  It’s the letter of law that purports to prevent them from doing so.

Damned if you do and damned if you don’t — do away with replay that is. With or without replay, we arrive at the very same result.  But don’t try to tell Doc that.  The bubble he occupies is sound proof: he won’t hear you.

Hits & Misses: Evaluating Regular Season Predictions

nba crystal ball

The crystal ball deceived us.  As it turns out, our preseason predictions fell something short of Nostradamus-like.  Then again, we’re in good company.   No one saw Toronto coming, and while it was fairly easy to identify most the teams that would make the playoffs out west, projecting their seeding was far from simple. Here’s how we did:

Eastern Conference Standings

Projected vs. (Actual)

1. Chicago  (Miami)

2. Miami (Indiana)

3. Indiana (Chicago)

4. Brooklyn (Toronto)

5. Cleveland (Washington)

6. Detroit (Brooklyn)

7. NY (Charlotte)

8. Washington (Atlanta)

Biggest Misses:  So maybe we overreacted a bit to the offseason acquisitions of the Cavs and Pistons.  Cleveland finds itself in nearly the dire straits it inhabited following Lebron’s exodus.  To stretch the definition of the word understatement, Bynum didn’t pan out. Nor did the signings of Jarret Jack and Earl Clark.  Everyone’s favorite to take the next step, Kyrie Irving instead regressed significantly.   If that’s not enough, the combo of Irving and Waiters proved that they can’t coexist, and Luol Deng aged 5 years during his flight from Chicago to Cleveland.   Oh, yeah, and the #1 overall pick, Anthony Bennett, evokes memories of Kwame Brown, except Kwame was a better post defender.

As for Detroit, Dumars’s epic cold streak continued, as his signings of Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings yielded results eerily similar to his earlier mistakes, Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva.  At least they have Andre Drummond.   Finally, we failed to foresee Toronto’s ascendance, as well as the career year Kyle Lowry delivered to drive it.

Biggest Hits: We correctly predicted the top three seeds, albeit in a different order. We won’t over celebrate: Indy and Miami were gimmes. Beyond that, we were probably higher than most on Washington, which exceeded expectations, and after an alarming start, the Nets nearly gave us a bullseye.

Western Conference Standings

Projected vs. (Actual)

1. LAC (San Antonio)

2. Golden State (OKC)

3. OKC (LAC)

4. Houston (Houston)

5. New Orleans (Portland)

6. San Antonio (Golden State)

7.  LAL (Memphis)

8. Blazers (Dallas)

Biggest Misses: Where do we start?  That Lakers pick looks awful, but given the unprecedented rash of injuries that kept most of its best players, and all of its point guards off the court for a majority of the season, it’s hard to know what might’ve been.  Conversely, there are few, if any good excuses for underrating San Antonio.  I still have my doubts that they’ll make it to the WCF, but the Spurs are a regular season wrecking crew.  It’s as though Popovich has them auto pilot.  They’re immune to their best players’ absence, lack anyone worth of an All-NBA selection, and yet, no team has been more consistently effective.

It’s hard to say if that snub is more or less egregious than the tremendous overrating of the Pelicans.  Losing Holiday and Anderson for much or most of the season didn’t help matters, but it’s hard to argue that this was a playoff team even with everyone healthy.  Those errors aside, we won’t lose too much sleep about the rest of our WC predictions.  It’s tight at the top, bottom, and in the middle, so much so that just a few games mark the gap between almost every seed.

Biggest Hits:  Bullseye on Houston, and a pat on the back for picking the Blazers to make the playoffs when few others did.

Mock Draft 2.0

Since our last Mock Draft, UConn emerged from the field of 64 to claim the national championship. This adds more fodder to the notion that parity is on the rise in college basketball (UConn was a #7 seed, and Kentucky and #8 seed).  More relevantly for our purposes, the NBA draft die is now cast until the combine and workouts provide new material to evaluate.

Tournament performances often significantly impact teams’ perceptions – perhaps even unduly so.  It’s at least questionable whether that’ll happen this year. A few players ended on a high note.  Shabazz Napier, Aaron Gordon, Ronde Hollis-Jefferson, Gary Harris, T.J. Warren, and the Harrison boys  all helped themselves to varying degrees. Wiggins and Parker were abjectly awful, while McDermott, Ennis, Grant, and Hood weren’t much better.

In the wake of those developments, our board remains largely in tact.  No one broke into what I would characterize as the “Elite 3″ prospects in this year’s draft (Wiggins, Parker, Embiid), and perhaps only Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis played his way out of the top 10.  While lacking a true shake-up, several players now appear capable of delivering just that should their momentum hold.

bucks1. Andrew Wiggins. Scary bad tournament.  It wasn’t an off game — we could write that off.  It was the reemergence of Wiggins’ downarrowpassivity that has many questioning whether he has any alpha in his makeup.  Sure, it was easy to see that Kansas lacked the sort of playmaker who could help put Wiggins in position to dominate, but there were too many times when he looked more comfortable moving the ball around the perimeter or lingering behind the line than aggressively inserting himself into the action. Can a killer instinct be taught?  That’s the pivotal question for Milwaukee. Had Parker dominated or Embiid put his health issues to rest, Wiggins likely would no longer hold the top spot. Right now, he remains #1 by default.

76ers2. Jabari Parker.  Serious questions have begun to emerge about Parker’s ability to defend in the NBA.  If Parker downarrowdoesn’t show up to workouts in better shape, with improved lateral agility, he begins to look at lot more like Glenn Robinson than a franchise player.

magic3.  Joel Embiid.  At this stage, no one has any clue where Embiid will go.  If he gets a clean bill of health, he could be back on top.  If concernsdownarrow continue to grow, his stock could tumble.   Too many good players remain on the board to risk Greg Oden 2.0 here.  If doubts merely linger, however, and produce diverging opinions, someone will take him no later than 3.  His ceiling simply is too high.

celtics4.  Aaron Gordon.  No question, Shabaaz is the tournament’s darling.  But no top-level prospect emerged from the tournament with more momentum than Gordon.  Doubts about his position that came up so often a few months ago have been replaced by the arrow_upsentiment that he’s such a good athlete as to make the argument over his fit at the 3 or the 4 relatively meaningless.  Gordon looks more and more like Shawn Marion.  And that’s a damn good thing.  Right now, star potential separates him from Parker and Wiggins. Should one of those two fall farther and/or Gordon can show an improved shooting stroke, don’t be surprised if he hasn’t reached his ceiling here just yet.

Everything but a point guard is on Boston’s shopping list.  And if Ainge moves Rondo, he’ll enter the draft looking for one of those too.  In that case, Exum and Smart become intriguing options at #4 too. But if Rondo stays, Ainge would be hard pressed to find a better running mate than Gordon, who also provides the versatility every GM could use to rebuild a roster.

jazz5. Marcus Smart.  Despite his team’s woes, Smart played his ass off in the tournament.  He’s a tough, furious competitor who arrow_uppossesses the highest floor of any player in the draft.  No, he’s probably not going to be Rose or Westbrook.  But even if he never improves his shot, it’s hard to envision him becoming anything less than a top 15 floor general and an imposing, impactful defensive force in the backcourt.

Is Exum potentially a better fit next to Burke?  Ya, he does. If the early rumblings are any indication, however, Exum is more likely to be playing in Australia than Salt Lake City next season.

lakerslogo6. LAL Dante Exum.  We know he’s hired Kobe’s agent.  And we know that in certain circles, it’s thought that he has a short list 074079-rounded-glossy-black-icon-alphanumeric-equal-signof teams that could entice him to leave Australia.  To my recollection, Steve Francis was the last player to force his way to a desired draft destination.  We may find out if the league has changed.

Randle and Vonleh merit mention here too. If either demonstrates upside roughly comparable to Exum’s, LA’s need for bigs might be more compelling than Exum’s intrigue.

kings7. Noah Vonleh. Who is Noah Vonleh?  The more I attempt to answer that question (at least in terms of an NBA prospect), the arrow_upmore I like what I see.  Vonleh flew under the radar on a sub-par Indiana squad this season.  He shouldn’t have.  Equip a 6’11, well-developed frame with NBA level atheleticism, reliable perimeter shooting, prolific rebounding, and disruptive defense, and you have Noah Vonleh.  What he lacks in post-polish relative to Randle, he makes up with a balanced floor game that seems well-suited to prevailing dynamics in the NBA.   Like Gordon’s, Vonleh’s rise might not end here.

pistons8. Gary Harris.  He’s a 6’4″ elite athlete with a money (if streaky) quick release from long range, and a dogged defender to boot.  What’s arrow_upnot to like?  Are we sure that Harris isn’t a better prospect than Bradley Beal?  Compare their college stats, and you’ll see comparable production.  Given the structure of its roster, Detroit all-but must take a guard with this pick.

Depending on how they feel about Jennings moving forward, Ennis carries a certain appeal here too.  It’d be great to pick up a floor leader.  With pedestrian athleticism and a still developing frame, however, it’s hard to feel confident that Ennis can be that guy.

To some extent, need trumps talent here. Julius Randle’s almost universally regarded as the better prospect. But with Drummond, Monroe, and Smith already squabbling over minutes, adding Randle is out of the question. Detroit needs shooting, and Harris has few, if any, legitimate question marks.   That makes him the pick here.

cavs9. Julius Randle.  Randle’s a tremendous player.  Next to Smart, he’s as close as it gets a sure thing in this draft.  You know what you’re getting:  Randle has an NBA ready physique and a post game that promises to make him one of the league’s most downarroweffective scorers in the paint from day one. His scoring explosions, however, tapered off as the season progressed.  It’s only fair to note that triple teams played a significant role in his diminished output.  Nonetheless, Randle consistently struggled to get the shot he wanted against long, athletic defenders.  Since there are quite a few of those in the NBA, that’s a bad omen.  But it’s not a fatal flaw.

Charles Barkely is quick to admit that he struggled most against the likes of Kevin McHale and Kevin Garnett, the long arms of whom even his considerable heft couldn’t prevent from bothering his shot. Of course, Barkely had a prolific career in spite of those struggles.  That’s not to say Randle’s going to be Chuck, but it is to point out that almost every NBA player has his Kryptonite.

Forced into a comparison, Randle seems destined for a career arc like that of Carlos Boozer, which really isn’t half bad.  Athletically, Randle falls somewhere between the ground bound Boozer/David West variety and the freakish David Lee/Blake Griffin brand of power forward.  That makes his ceiling higher than those of the former two, but unless he entirely transforms his approach to defense, Randle’s unlikely to become much more than a millennial man’s Boozer.  And that’s mostly why he slips — NBA GMs love upside. Randle’s more or less of a known quantity, which makes it harder for a lottery GM to fall in love with the idea of selecting him.

As for Randle to Cleveland, it’s tough to argue that he’d be a great fit on a roster with Tristian Thompson and Anthony Bennett.  But, at #9, it’s even more difficult to find a player who makes more sense.   Don’t be surprised if Cleveland moves this pick, perhaps in a package with Dion Waiters.

sixers10. Montrezz Harrell. Dude’s a beast.  Why he’s fluttered somewhere between the late teens and twenties on most draft boards arrow_upcontinues to elude me.  Sure, ideally he’d be 6’10″/250 instead of  6’8″/235.  Repeatedly, however, we’ve seen that guys his size – especially those with long arms, like Harrell’s – prove that prototypical size is just that – a prototype, not a prerequisite for success.  Blake Griffin, Paul Milsap, Antawn Jamison, Elton Brand, Larry Johnson, and even Karl Malone – in addition to the names referenced above – all are/were highly productive post players.  There’s no reason Harrell follow the blueprint they’ve left for him.

Philly gets a gifted scorer at the four who won’t need to be a formidable rim protector next to Nerlens Noel.  Sixers fans would have to feel pretty good about the young front court of Noel, Harrell, and Parker.

nugs11. P.J. Hairston. The D-League’s poster-child continues to build momentum as the draft approaches.  What a tremendous story arrow_upof redemption. It’s almost unthinkable that a guy, who by many estimates possesses the talent of a top 5 pick, could more or less be written off due to issues off the court, and then scrap and claw his way back to the lottery.  We’re pulling for ya, P.J., and not just because the compelling narrative — kid’s the most lethal perimeter scorer in this draft not named Jabari.

Denver’s been burned before by questionable character guys (see, e.g., J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin, Birdman, and now Javale McGee and his outsized contract combine with nagging rumors about the Manimal’s mental makeup to give the Nuggets what may well be the league’s most combustible frontcourt).  So maybe Denver passes on P.J. in favor of one of several more or less comparable perimeter talents still on the board.  They shouldn’t.   The Nuggets roster’s long on mediocre wings, none of which have the potential to become an all-star.   Hairston has that kind of upside, and at #11, few, if any others possess.

magic12. Tyler Ennis.  After landing Embiid, Magic fans will be clamoring for a natural point guard.  As the self-dubbed resident expert on all things Cuse, I’m not quite sure what to tell you about Ennis.  Before downarrowthe season, I’d heard about a talented point with good size who the Orange would rely upon to orchestrate Boeheim’s attack.  During the first two or three games, I wondered what all the buzz had been about.  Ennis had none of the qualities that jump off the screen. His middling athleticism, average shooting, sound fundamentals, and Duncan-like stoic demeanor weren’t quick to make Cuse fans forget about MCW.

He grew on me.  The more I watched, the more I saw the nation’s most poised freshman, always in control, steadily guiding Cuse to a 25-0 start and the #1 ranking.  With each passing game, it seemed that his confidence – and mine in him – grew.  Even if it wasn’t Sportscenter material, he got to the basket at will, and displayed a deft touch to finish over bigs lurking near the rim. Suddenly, he was ice-cold clutch too – his mid-court heave to sink Pitt just the most notorious example of his lethal, late game daggers.

When the Orange began to collapse in February, many of the same questions about Ennis resurfaced.  It wasn’t so much that he catalyzed Cuse’s demise, but rather that he proved incapable of preventing it.  On a team that struggled to score, Ennis too often languished on the perimeter, settling for jump shots or moving the ball without an evident purpose.  He became error prone on defense, and while it’s difficult to gauge an individual’s effectiveness on defense in Syracuse’s zone, it’s safe to say that he will not be a plus, let alone a lock-down defender at the next level.

Those concerns only grew during the tournament.  When Ennis’s shot betrayed him, he seemed content to coast on offense rather than force his way to the rim.  And once it struck him that his team needed his penetration, Ennis couldn’t always deliver.  In several instances, he appeared to lack the strength necessary to finish through contact.

So where does all of this leave us heading into the draft? If I’m a GM, I’m not convinced that Ennis is anything more than a young Steve Blake or a latter day Howard Eisley, i.e., a career backup who can play 12 years in the league and become a valuable contributor to a winning team.  In the lottery, you’d hope for better.

Maybe Ennis is a starting point guard in the NBA.  But finding a comp. is no simple task. The uberathletes are out (so long Russ, Rose, Wall, Rondo, Lillard, and Bledsoe).  So too are the speed-deamons (Ty Lawson, Monta Ellis, Isaiah Thomas, and a younger Tony Parker) transcendent passers (CP3 and Rubio), prolific scorers (Curry, Kyrie, Dragic, Jennings, and Kemba), and big-bodied floor generals (Kyle Lowry, Deron Williams, Jrue Holiday, George Hill.)

Scour the league for Ennis’s predecessor, and you’ll find that his best case scenario lies somewhere between Kirk Hinrich and Mike Conley.  Of course, I could be wrong.  Maybe Ennis develops a bit of Dragic’s creativity, Paul’s feistiness, and a dangerous jumpshot.   I just wouldn’t bet on it.

twolves13. Zach Lavine.  The Wolves need instant impact.  They need more backcourt production, and reliable shooting to offset Rubio’s arrow_upincreasingly horrific stroke.  So why not take Nick Stauskas or Doug McDermmott here?   Each wields an advanced offensive repetoire, and both are dangerous enough from outside to fully occupy a defender.  And critically, those guys are ready to play tomorrow.

Thing is, Minny needs a game changer to keep Kevin Love in the Twin Cities.   Stauskus and McDermott may be nice pieces, but they’re not that.       Hence, the Wolves may be willing to roll the dice on a player whose upside is matched by no more than five players in this draft.  Lavine’s an electric athlete with the size to play both guard spots, and has shown glimpses of a sweet shooting stroke that seems likely to improve. He’s the sort of talent that changes minds, and even with other pressing needs, transforming Love’s perception of the team’s future has to come first.

griz14.  Jerami Grant.  In Memphis, it’s time to move on from Zach Randolph.  He’s on the decline, and we’ve seen where a team 074079-rounded-glossy-black-icon-alphanumeric-equal-signled by Z-Bo and Gasol ends up: the Grizzlies always come up a bit short.   Memphis would do well to snag Grant here.  The son of Harvey and nephew of Horace is just the sort of specimen you’d expect with that lineage.  A long 6’10”, Grant has the explosion and body control to rival the league’s best 3s.  If he didn’t shoot like a raw 5, he’d have been long gone by now.

Try to mold him into a 3 and you’ll be disappointed.  Think he’s the next prolific stretch-4?  Better have a backup plan. On the right team, however, Grant could be devastating.  And Memphis is an ideal home.  Gasol’s incomparable post-passing and deep range would empower Grant, allowing him to do what he does best – slash to the rim, crash the offensive board’s, cover large swaths of the court, and harass defenders with arms that just don’t end.

hawks15.  James Young. A 6’8″, bouncy wing who can fill it up from all over the court and make the spectacular finish at the rim: arrow_upyou know of anyone on the Hawks roster who fits that description?  Neither do we.  Oh, and he’s an improving shooter from range too.   At #15, it doesn’t get much better.

bulls074079-rounded-glossy-black-icon-alphanumeric-equal-sign16. Clint Capella.  With time rapidly eating away at the albatross that is Carlos Boozer’s contract,the time is ripe to draft his replacement.  That’s not to say Capella’s game remotely resembles his predecessor’s.   At 6’10, 219, he’s taller, longer, and more explosive, albeit perhaps 15 pounds too thin to avoid getting pushed around on the block.  Knowing they pick at #19 too, Chicago can afford to roll the dice on the draft’s mystery man from Switzerland.

suns17. Nick Stauskas.  A luxury pick for Phoenix, Stauskas is ready to step in and step up what is already a high octane offense. arrow_upWith Dragic and Bledsoe creating havoc all over the floor, the Michigan phenom is poised to see plenty of good looks to show off his elite distance shooting.  An underrated ball-handler, Stauskas could develop into an ideal 6th man.

celtics18. Willie Cauley Stein.  It’s boom or bust for Danny at this point.  And if he hits with this pick, the dividends will be 074079-rounded-glossy-black-icon-alphanumeric-equal-signconsiderable.  Cauley-Stein oozes potential, with an athletic 7′ foot frame that appears well suited to carry at least 30 more pounds to take him from a toothpick at 220 to an imposing 250. If that were the whole story, he wouldn’t be available at #18.  Kentucky’s giant produced very little, and never really looked like a man amongst boys.

bulls19.  Doug McDermott. McBuckets falls victim to the four year curse: stick around that long, and you become a known entity,downarrow which most GMs avoid like the plague.  While Doug’s unlikely to fill it up like he did in college, he’s still the draft’s best shooter and a creative scorer.   He’s a rich man’s Kyle Korver, and that makes him a perfect candidate to join the Bulls, which have yet to fill the former Bulls marksmen’s shoes.

raptorsarrow_up20. Rondae Hollis Jefferson.  Here’s one vote for ditching the Hollis to make our lives simpler.  Jefferson just might be the bestathlete in this class.  We’re not totally sure how that’ll translate, but it’s certainly never a bad thing.

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mavs21. Rodney Hood.  Once considered a lottery lock, Hood’s now thought to be somewhat of a one trick pony. To compound theproblem, his trick – long range shooting – faltered as the season progressed.   Nonetheless, don’t be surprised if workouts move this stellar athlete back up on the draft board.

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griz22. Cleanthony Early. There’s good reason for optimism in Memphis, as the Grizzlies add some much needed perimeter punch inthe form of the crafty wing from Wichita.

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jazz23. K.J. McDaniels.  With a roster stocked with young talent, the Jazz take a flier on a wing whose considerable upside is just beginning to garner attention.

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Bobcats24. T.J. Warren. He may struggle defensively, but at this point in the draft. every prospect has his flaws. Warren can score in bunches, and will make an immediate impact off the bench in Charlotte.

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rockets25. Kyle Anderson. UCLA’s skilled power forward generated a lot of buzz as he propelled the Bruins to a strong showing in the tournament.  He’s not much a defender, but that’ll matter less next to Dwight Howard.

downarrowsuns26. Dario Saric. Flush with young talent, expect Phoenix to jump at the chance to stash a premier talent overseas for a year or two.

074079-rounded-glossy-black-icon-alphanumeric-equal-sign

miami

27. Adrienne Paine.  Miami has to be thrilled to see this bruiser fall into its lap here. He’d fit nicely next to Bosh, and immediately upgrade Miami’s cast of castoff bigs.

074079-rounded-glossy-black-icon-alphanumeric-equal-sign

clips

28. Patrick Young.  The Clips are desperate for a capable third big man, and Young fits the bill.

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thunder29.  Shabazz Napier.  With Reggie Jackson potentially packing his bags this summer, OKC could use to bolster its backcourt with the tournament darling.

spurs

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30. SA Jarnell Stokes.  Tim Duncan isn’t getting any younger, and the Spurs have to be disappointed after signing Splitter to a lucrative deal last summer.  Stokes’s motor will be a welcome addition to SA’s aging front court.

 

 

The Week in Headlines

As always, these are actual headlines from actual websites…

midget headline

Bette Midler, is that you?  “Golden State Hits Rare Air On Wings of Curry.”Also under consideration for bold treatment: where is this restaurant?

We would’ve inquired about Mathew McConaughey. Marshall Inquires with D’Antoni.”  I seriously thought this was about Kendall Marshall asking about his playing time. What a gem.  Christmas came early this year, Lakers fans.

Um, it’s not the iPhone 6. Collins Heard Negative Feedback From Player. Did the player respond to a survey Collins passed out before the game?

Writing for toddlers. Buck center out for season with face injury.” It’s okay to tell us that Sanders has a fractured orbital bone.

What did he really find? Butler finds ‘rhythm’ to lift OKC past Denver.”  This headline makes total sense until you notice that “rhythm” is in quotes.  It’s like in high-school when you needed $10 from your parents to buy “soda.” We got you Caron. “Rhythm.” Uh-huh…

Does a guy that big really need dynamite? Report: Shaq being investigated for TNT assault.”

Insufficient Apologies:

He’s been busy. Cousins apologizes to announcer for ’12 incident.”  Alternatively, a less than scrupulous eye might legitimately infer that there were a dozen incidents.  Hey, it’s Boogie.

What about his draft picks? Jordan Apologizes to Player Over Shoe.”  ICYMI: See all Jordan’s picks – and who he passed over – here.

Adventures in Grammatical Subtleties:

Who won? Mathews, Lillard, propel Blazers vs. Wizards.”

A noble cause. Howard Sits vs. Wolves for Ankle Problem.” 

At least he has company. “Mark Jackson Under Fire with Warriors?”

One game, two stories:

Well, that’s one way to put it.  Bulls suffocate scuffling George, Pacers in win.”

Climate change debate infiltrates NBA.Bulls Deny Pacers Division Title.”

Questions no one is asking:  

No.  Are the Knicks as Good as Current Run Indicates?”

Okay, so the R&B thing has me curious.Kings’ Cousins releasing R&B Album?

From the Captain Obvious Files:

It’ll do that.Ex-NBA player Quinton Ross: erroneous death report made for ‘tough day’.”

Can I get an Amen?Kobe on L.A.: We need to figure this thing out.”  Good to see all of those business classes he’s been attending are paying off.

The Myth of Charlotte’s Misfortune

“The Charlotte Construction Co.: Bit by bit, the Bobcats, um, Hornets are building themselves into a team of the future,” reads the headline of Grantland’s Zach Lowe’s most recent column.

Always an interesting read, Lowe concludes that despite having suffered from a lack of good lottery fortune, Jordan’s Hornets have assembled a roster that merits applause.  While I can agree with neither the observation nor the conclusion, it’s the victimization of Charlotte that presents the more vexing analysis.

Let’s reexamine the Hornets’ draft fortunes.

  • 2006: With the third pick, Jordan infamously selected Gonzaga’s mustached scoring machine, Adam Morrison. Even in a notoriously mustache-adam-morrisonweak draft, Rajon Rondo, Kyle Lowry, and Brandon Roy headline a list of no fewer than 10 markedly superior players selected later.  (That list features Paul Milsap too. Given his selection in the latter half of the 2nd round, it’s hard to single out Jordan for this oversight.)
  • 2007: With the 8th pick, Jordan chose his Tar Heels’ Brandon Wright over Joakim Noah.  Ouch.  Also passed over? Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes, and Aaron Affalo, with Marc Gasol filling Milsap’s “hindsight’s 20/20” role.
  • 2008:  I’m beginning to sense a pattern, as Jordan selected D.J Augustin with the 9th pick, leaving Roy Hibbert, Brook Lopez, Serge Ibaka, Nic Batum, George Hill, Nikolas Pekovic, and DeAndre Jordan (no relation) on the board.
  • 2009: At #12, Jordan picked Gerald Henderson, who’s been okay.  Missed opportunities most prominently feature Jrue Holiday and Ty Lawson.
  • 2010: No pick.
  • 2011: To make up for the drought of 2010, Jordan picked Kemba Walker with the 9th selection, and Tobias Harris 19th. In his best performance since closing out the Jazz in 1996, Jordan managed to diminish his draft haul by swapping Harris for Bismack Biyombo. To add insult to injury, the Manimal, Reggie Jackson, and Jimmy Butler each were taken after the 19th pick.
  • 2012: I want to believe in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, whom Jordan selected with the #2 pick. And I’m not giving up hope yet. Beyond elite athletic gifts and flashes of stopper potential, MKG has done little to inspire such faith. I suppose this is to say that I’m not willing to add this pick to the list of Jordan’s complete whiffs, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to argue that MKG isn’t a bust on some level, especially upon considering the superior performances of Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, and Andre Drummond.
  • 2013: If MKG deserves he benefit of the doubt, Cody Zeller, merits only the doubt.  After struggling against long, athletic defenders in college, Jordan’s #4 pick consistently has provided evidence that his struggles were no aberration (not that there was any reason to suspect that they were in the first place.)  Take your pick: Carter-Williams, Trey Burke, and the even the trade value of Nerlens Noel – if not the player himself – headline a long list of better choices.

From this sample, we know that it isn’t just bad luck that’s kept Charlotte down.  Trouble is, I’m not so sure that luck played any role at all. To support his assertion that bad luck has kept Charlotte down, Lowe calls attention to the fact that despite having the worst record, Charlotte missed out on the #1 pick (Anthony Davis) in 2012. The NBA’s lottery system gives the team with the worst record a 25% chance to get the #1 pick (see table below).  In three out of four drafts, Charlotte doesn’t get the #1 pick.  Not drafting first isn’t bad luck.  It’s the expected outcome.

lottery%

Nor did Charlotte suffer from bad luck in Jordan’s previous six drafts.

  • 2006: Relative Lottery Odds (3rd); Outcome (3rd)
  • 2007: Relative Lottery Odds (8th); Outcome (8th)
  • 2008: Relative Lottery Odds (8th); Outcome (9th)
  • 2009: Relative Lottery Odds (12th); Outcome (12th)
  • 2011: Relative Lottery Odds (8th); Outcome (9th)
  • 2012: Relative Lottery Odds (1st); Outcome (2nd)
  • 2013: Relative Lottery Odds (2nd); Outcome (4th)

Only in 2008 and 2013 did Charlotte suffer slightly from poor luck.  Neither instance was especially consequential, as Charlotte lost the opportunity to select Joel Alexander in 2008, and Anthony Bennett, Victor Oladipo, or Otto Porter last year.  With Jordan’s track record, can we really be confident that he’d have taken Oladipo? More realistically, Charlotte dodged two bullets, only to be struck by a third. Its fate is a function of probability, not bad luck.

Mock Draft 1.0 — LottoProjector Update

Before we kick off Mock Draft season, take a quick look at how we project the lottery to shake out,  based on updates on our LottoProjector. In case you missed it, here’s an explanation of how the LottoProjector works.

lottoprojector

So that’s the draft order we’ll use as a basis for Mock Draft 1.0.  Let’s get to the picks.

bucks

(1) Andrew Wiggins.  As they so often do, lofty expectations disappointed.   Scouts and pundits alike showered the Canadian sensation with a degree of praise last afforded to  Harrison Barnes.  (Remember when he was the next Kobe?).  Whereas Barnes crumbled beneath the weight of expectations, Wiggins merely failed to live up to them.  Big difference.

After showing flashes of dominance one game, he’d plod through the next, drifting from perplexed to timid.  By  midseason the chattering classes had issued a verdict: Wiggins was just another tantalizing prospect who couldn’t live up to the hype.  He wasn’t a bust, but he didn’t have it either.  Having heard rumors of the impending arrival of a new Ferrari, no words were necessary to capture the palpable sense of dissapointment when a BMW rolled up instead.

Indeed, Wiggins teammate Joel Embid rather quickly usurped his position as the world’s consensus best prospect.  For Wiggins, the comeback from disappointment didn’t start all at once.  Buzz followed his 19 rebound performance against Iowa State, dissipated in his fruitless 3 point effort against Oklahoma State, then ebbed again in the wake of back-to-back 27 and 29 point games during a stretch when he began to flash a legit post game. No, this would not be Harrison Barnes 2.0.  We judged him too soon.

41 points, 8 rebounds, 4 blocks,  and 5 steals.  That’ll get your attention.  Wiggins exploded last week against West Virginia.  Coinciding with Embid’s injury, Wiggins’ headline grabbing performances were enough to swing the scales back in his favor.  Now?  Scouts once non-plussed by a struggling prospect now deliver glowing assessments of a smooth, yet outlandishly explosive 6’8″ wing whose scoring prowess overshadows a disruptive defensive presence.   Eyes refreshed, they see a star in the making, and the number one pick.

If Lebron’s a Ferrari, Wiggins doesn’t have that makeup.  As much as I’d like to casually step into the BMW the valet just brought around the corner, this comparison requires a superior sports car.  Maybe Wiggins is a Maserati — a post Toronto pre-Houston Tracy McGrady, three years ahead of TMac’s learning curve.

For Milwaukee, this shouldn’t be terribly difficult.  Embid could be a game changer.  If we were setting ceiling’s, Embid’s size makes his higher than any other prospect in the draft.  But he’s a volatile prospect — it’s frightening that we can’t totally dismiss the notion that Embid’s floor is Hasheem Thabeet.   Somehow, envisioning him in a Bucks jersey makes that floor appear increasingly possible.  Milwaukee can’t afford to miss.  Moreover, it needs star power — it will find none through free agency.  Wiggins has superstar talent, enough of which he’s displayed to prefer his slightly lower, vastly less volatile ceiling.

76ers(2) Jabari Parker.  He just fits.  Unless Embid or Exum can convince the brass that he’s the sort of transcendent prospect whom you build around, and ask questions later, the mismatched rosters created by drafting either makes Parker the clear-cut choice.  That’s not to diminish Parker.  Early season dominance led to expectations not unlike those faced by Wiggins. When Parker proved to be something other than Carmelo 2.0, we sighed.  Not him too.  Albeit in less dramatic fashion, Parker’s rebuilt his value too.  He adjusted to the triple teams, finding ways to unleash an offensive arsenal that lends credence to those Melo comparisons.  As rumors persist that Parker’s still not in NBA shape (injuries disrupted his summer training regimen), there’s reason to believe that Parker’s just scratching the surface.

magic(3) Joel Embiid. Many suspect that Orlando’s focused on adding a perimeter star, which naturally leads them to project Exum over Embiid here. I’m skeptical.   Sure they have some useful big men.  None has star or DPOY potential.   Embiid has both.  Analysts run for the hills upon hearing questions about a 7’2″ prospect’s back.  And that’s not without reason.  The ruined to truncated careers of  Oden, Bynum, and Ming, substantiate those concerns.  Let’s remember, LA and Houston each would still choose Bynum or Ming even with the benefit of hindsight.  Durant’s known talent, coupled with Oden’s suspect injury history at Ohio St. make Portland’s selection more dubious.  Even then, almost to a man, analysts concluded that Portland had made the right choice.  At some point, the potential reward of a dominate 7 footer outweighs the risk.  Guy’s who can do this don’t grow on trees.

A few minutes into that video, it becomes clear that we’re not talking about taking a chance on a prospect as raw as, say, Andrew Bynum was coming out of high-school.  Embiid freakish length and athleticism will immediately cause havoc around the rim.  And given that basketball remains somewhat of a new endeavor for Embiid, flashes of polish on offense suggest an upward trajectory.  Unless Magic GM Rob Henigan genuinely believes that Exum or Smart will make first or second all-nba teams,  Nikola Vucevic is no excuse to pass on the chance to select an historic big man.

lakerslogo

(4) Dante Exum.  The draft’s man of mystery, Exum unquestionably benefits from alack of scrutiny while scouts pick apart college players’ games.  But he can’t hide forever.  Without much film against top flight competition, workouts will have disproportionate impact on Exum’s stock.  He’ll need to prove that he’s the Penny style athlete that we occasionally see in a youtube clip.  Should he deliver anything much less than that, his stock will be in for a precipitous decline.

LA faces what may be dueling imperatives with this pick.  Reopen Kobe’s championship window (to the extent possible) and select a building block for the next generation Lakers.  These objectives are reconcilable.  Perhaps Wiggins or Embiid, for instance, accomplish both. To add another layer of complexity, the Lakers lack of direction means that the player might also need to fit D’Antoni’s system (or that of the new coach), replace Pau Gasol, and/or otherwise both blend in and excel on a roster that largely remains to be composed.  Tie goes to the guy who shares Kobe’s agent.

celtics(5) Julius Randle.  The draft’s forgotten man, Randle’s flown well under the radar after triple and even quadruple teams poured cold water on his white-hot start to the season.  Randle’s has the best post game in this class, and it’s not particularly close.  At this point, that low post devestation seems to have been largely offset by legitimate questions about his ability to finish over size and effort on defense, and stupid questions about his “steal rate.”

He’s a better athlete than Carlos Boozer, rebounds like Paul Milsap, and far more skilled than David West.  Yet, he lacks the midrange touch displayed by all of those three, and has shown neither  Milsap’s motor nor West’s toughness. Randle’s a very good athlete, but doesn’t possess the above the rime explosiveness of Blake Griffin or a latter day Amare.  Look for traits shared by all of  those NBA comparisons, however, and some trends begin to emerge.  All are legitimate power forwards, and tremendous rebounders.  None will be mistaken for a first team all defense, Charles Oakley/Ben Wallace type (West deserves some mention as mostly a + defensively).  And each can be more (Griffin/Amare/25 yr. old Boozer) or less (West, 30 something Boozer) of an offensive centerpiece.  In some form, this is very likely what you’ll get from Randle.   That’s not bad.  Not bad at all.

jazz(6)  Aaron Gordon. Extra-terrestrial athlete, long, committed defender, admirable motor, strong rebounder, and still more rough than diamond offensively.  That’s Gordon in a nutshell.  This was once Shawn Marion’s profile.  It was also Joel Alexander’s.  Marion seems like a more realistic comp than Alexander, but we can’t overlook the fact that we’ve seen this type of player profile many times before.  Sometimes it works out, and Gordon does indeed to be the creme of the crop.  More often, the offense never materializes, and these guys become a run of the mill, wing athlete that teams cycle through like laundry.

If you’re the Jazz, Gordon brings a new element to a talented cast of upstarts.  Adding size and explosion at the wing, Gordon’s a great compliment to Hayward and Burke, equally capable of guarding Hayward’s man and finishing Burke’s lobs.  But Utah better be damn sure about Trey Burke.  If they’re not, or if they’ve overrated him, the next two guys could make them live to regret this pick.

kings(7) Marcus Smart.  Sacramento should be praying that the chips fall like this.  Smart’s the leader they need.  A guy confident enough to confront Boogie, and then to make damn sure the offense goes through the talented big man.  Oh, and, he’s also pretty good.

pistons(8) Pistons.  Tyler Ennis. If Ennis is still on the board, Detroit has a dilemma on its hands.  It sorely needs a sweet shooting 3 (McDermott and Hood fit the bill), but can’t be sold that Jennings can be a point guard on an upper-echolon team after witnessing the dysfunction on offense all season. Ennis is more Kyrie than John Wall.  Even then, while he has the size to rival both guys, he’s discernibly less explosive than Kyrie (although Kyrie didn’t display that attribute in his abbreviated college career).

That’s the knock.  Everything else is there.  He’s poised, clutch (see below), selfless, and does a little bit of everything on offense.  Workouts loom large for what has to be a record, second Canadian lottery pick.

cavs(9) Doug McDermott.  Like Utah, Cleveland should rejoice if the board shakes out this way.  That gaping hole at the 3 wasn’t filled by Deng, who’s looked abjectly miserable since arriving mid-season.   At least he’s a free agent.    If Cleveland’s going to stay with the Irving/Waiters backcourt, the third guy on the perimeter has to be a knock-down shooter.   By all accounts, few, if any better shooters have come through the draft in the past 10 years.

sixers*(10) Gary Harris. Philly could go in any number of directions here.  With Parker on board, they boast elite talent at the 1, 3, and 5.  If they turn to the four, Noah Vonleh and Jerami Grant offer tremendous talent with distinct skillsets.  Grant, in particular, has the type of swiss-army knife game to add value to any roster.  But I think they shore up the backcourt with a prospect at the 2 who would go in the top five of most drafts.  That’s Gary Harris, an electric two-way guard, who could learn to live with MCW’s ball dominance.

*via New Orleans

nugs*(11) Rodney Hood.  Denver would have to be tempted by Grant and Vonleh here, but neither is so good as to warrant looking past their log-jam up front.   Hood’s an elite, 6’8″ athlete with a sweet shot.   Denver has no one like him.  Ty Lawson won’t be disappointed.

*via New York

magic*(12) Magic.  P.J. Hairston. With Embiid on board, Orlando turns in a surprising pick to bolster it’s perimeter scoring.  Hairston, the once tantalizing Tar Heel turned D-League phenom, provides serious firepower from the 2 or 3.  See for yourself.

*via Denver

Meet LottoProjector 1.0

nba-draft-lottery3

With roughly a quarter of the season remaining, the playoff picture has begun to settle. So too have the bottom-feeders begun to emerge.  Perhaps owing to what many projected to be a stellar draft class, the sure fire lottery teams have received an unusual degree of attention.  Indeed, “tanking” has become a household concept, permeating amateur blogs and the Sloan conference alike.

A once largely tepid, or even simmering concern about the incentive to lose has reached a boil.   On the heals of trades that sent Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner packing for very near 10 cents on the dollar, the Sixers have been singled out as the most egregious offender of the unwritten rule that basketball teams must at least try to win.  Of course, Philly’s hardly blazing a trail in uncharted territory.  The life of the powerful incentive to lose coincides with the existence of the draft lottery system.  Its newfound notoriety results not from shifting incentives, but from heightened rationality engendered by the proliferation of analytics, and, more generally, smarter management personnel.

As long as the draft system rewards losing with increased expected lottery value, in most instances, rational teams without a legitimate chance to at least make (and arguably succeed in) the playoffs should prefer to lose.  That’s no revelation.  But with increasing frequency, teams are dispensing with the thinly veiled guise of “trying.”  It says here that this is no cause for alarm — instead of spoon feeding their fans sugar coated absurdities, teams are trusting that fans have become sufficiently sophisticated to handle the truth.   If the league, or particular teams are offended by that candor, well, the answer isn’t likely to be found in charades.  Change the incentives, not the etiquette of responses thereto.

Diatribe concluded, as an unabashed Lakers fan, I’ll admit that I’ve been carefully analyzing their odds of scoring a premium lottery pick.  In that analysis, I found Strength of Schedule to be a woefully inadequate predictor, and developed a new tool to project the lottery standings, “LottoProjector,” exhibited in the table below.  Here’s how it works:

  1. Start with wins to date.
  2. Divide each team’s remaining games amongst one of three categories: (i) vs. Lower Tier teams (“LT”), i.e., those included in the table, (ii) vs. Elite teams, which we’ve defined as Miami, Indiana, OKC, San Antonio, Houston, and the Clippers, or (iii) vs. the Field, which includes all non-LT and non-Elite teams.
  3. Assign a win probability to each category.  
    • For games against Elite teams,, this is simple, as LT teams are unlikely to prevail under any conditions.  We’ve assigned a 5% win probability to this category. (Note: ordinarily, that percentage would be higher — perhaps as high as 15%. Pairing the enhanced incentive for LT teams to lose with the extra motivation for Elite teams to optimize playoff seeding, however, significantly reduces the probability that an LT team will win these matchups.)
    • It’s likewise relatively easy to project a reasonably accurate probability of LT teams winning against the field, which we’ve pegged at 20%, a number that represents Philly’s current winning %.  Given the above stated late season incentives, we feel that this percentage is an reasonable estimate.
    • For games against fellow LT teams, the calculus becomes more complex.  With roughly commensurate incentives at play, factors like home-court and back to back (“B2B”) become more influential.   Thus we’ve assigned a 65% win probability for home games against LT teams (reduced to 52% for B2B games), and a 35% win probability for road games (reduced to 28% for B2B games).

Lottery

It is by no means perfect — it is an estimate after all.   Off the top of my head, I see several flaws that could be adjusted with further analysis, but are somewhat difficult to entirely cure:

  • Playing the Detroit Pistons obviously is not the same as playing the Milwaukee Bucks.  Some of the LT teams are worse than others.  Trouble is, this varies greatly from night to night, and that variation is likely to become more pronounced as the lottery picture becomes clearer.  That is to say, Cleveland looks great for two games, but once missing the playoffs becomes a statistical reality, performance is bound to change.
  • LT teams are more likely to win at home than on the road against both Elite teams and the Field.  Lottery Projector takes this into consideration.  For instance, an LT team likely has something closer to a 30% chance of winning versus the Field at home, but only a 10% chance on the road.  We spit the difference.  Obviously, this skews the metric a bit for teams that play a disproportionate number of games home or away.
  • In an attempt to secure an optimal playoff opponent, we’re likely to see some “tanking” by playoff teams in their last five games or so.  At this point Lottery Projector does not, and cannot take this effect into account.

Conclusions:  It would take a minor miracle for Milwaukee and Philadelphia to fail to secure the #1 and #2 spots.  The Magic are quite likely to be right behind them at #3, while the Lakers and Celtics appear poised for a photo-finish to determine #4 and #5, as do the Kings and Jazz for #6 and #7.  Conversely, #8-11 remain quite fluid. And finally, the Nuggets appear to be a lock to finish #12 (the bright side is that they own the Knicks’ pick too).

Sloan Sports Analytics Conference 2014: First Impressions of The Hot Hand Effect

I can’t totally explain why, but Dennis Scott (aka “3D”!) is the first name that came to mind upon considering the “Hot Hand Effect.”  It’s a case in point for this piece by Andrew Bocskocsky, John Ezekowitz, and Carolyn Stein, that has basketball stat geeks (myself included) quite literally atwitter.  More often than not, advanced metrics have been perceived – fairly or otherwise – to challenge, or even contradict what our eyes tell us about basketball.   That makes this analysis especially fascinating.  It confirms that players do indeed run hot and cold.  That is, when we hear an announcer exclaim, “He’s on fire,” (flashback to NBA Jam circa 1993), the statistics might well back it up.

Here’s the abstract, and a photo from the presentation:

The vast literature on the Hot Hand Fallacy in basketball rests on the assumption that shot selection is independent of player-perceived hot or coldness. In this paper, we challenge this assumption using a novel dataset of over 83,000 shots from the 2012-2013 National Basketball Association (NBA) season, combined with optical tracking data of both the players and the ball. We create a comprehensive model of shot difficulty using relevant initial shot conditions, and use it to show that players who have exceeded their expectation over recent shots shoot from significantly further away, face tighter defense, are more likely to take their team’s next shot, and take more difficult shots. We then turn to the Hot Hand itself and show that players who are outperforming will continue to do so, conditional on the difficulty of their present shot. Our estimates of the Hot Hand effect range from 1.2 to 2.4 percentage points in increased likelihood of making a shot.”

hot hand

The research begs at least as many questions as it answers – particularly with regard to the conditions under which a player is considered to have been “guarded more closely,” or to have taken a “more difficult shot” –  but nonetheless is laudable both in terms of ambition and the quality of analysis.   In other words, I like it a lot.  More to come from the SSAC 2014…

No Risk No Reward: Unsolicited Advice to the Contenders

At this point, it would constitute an upset of tremendous proportion were one of the Heat, Thunder, and Pacers not to bring home the O’Brien trophy in June.  If it isn’t broken…Well, that’s certainly one way to look at it: stay the course, and don’t risk upsetting the apple cart by tweaking a good thing at the margins.  Where others see risk, I see opportunity.  This is the time to strike.  These three teams are so closely matched, and sufficiently distanced from the pack that a bold move in the next three days could decide the title.

lebron durant george

1. Miami.  Who would admonish the reigning two-time champs to mess with a formula that’s led them to three straight Finals?  I would, for one.  Yes, Miami’s the champ until proven otherwise.  Yes, Lebron looks as formidable as ever.  Yes, these guys have been there before, and know how to get there again.   And yes, they are more vulnerable than at any point in the past three seasons.

Mike Miller’s gone.  And Battier, Allen, and Haslem aren’t merely showing their age, they’re raising serious questions about their ability to make the game-changing performances this season each has delivered in the past.   Battier simply is no longer an elite defender, and might not even be a good one anymore.  That means his value is directly tied to his ability to hit wide-open corner threes.  During some stretches, he seems up to the task.  During others, he’s proven that drouts can endure for months in the NBA.   Haslem’s heart is still there, but the always undersized four’s waning athleticism has relegated him to a bit performer, capable of delivering hard foul, but unable to grab pivotal rebounds.   Allen’s shooting makes his age a relatively lesser issue.  His greatly restricted lateral movement, however, makes him ill-equipped to guard anyone, let alone his own position, and thus as near an equivalent to a designated hitter as the league has seen for some time.

Borrowing from Jalen, the “flashes of Flash” we’ve seen from Wade are both encouraging and cause for concern.   With regard to the former, when Wade’s been on the court, he’s been much better than last season.   If that Wade shows up against Indy and in the Finals, this analysis may be for naught.   To elaborate on the latter, Wade’s needed a lot of time off.  Time that he won’t get in the playoffs.   If, like last season, he can’t be a legitimate 2 option when the games matter most, the Heat will need something, someone else to make up for the declining performance of its role players, not to mention the improvement of OKC and Indy.

Here’s the move: Miami sends its 1st round pick and the expiring deals of Rashard Lewis, James Jones, and Toney Douglas to the Lakers for Jordan Hill and Jodie Meeks.  While it’s tough to stomach parting with a first rounder in a deep draft, Hill and Meeks are worth it.  Hill is the precisely the aggressive offensive rebounding force that Miami needs.  He doesn’t need the ball, is a plus defender, and a capable mid range shooter.  In essence, he’s 2006 Udonis Haslem.  Given the Lakers abysmal record, Meeks stellar season has flown under the radar.  With a cat-quick release, he’s been lights-out from three, shooting at a 45% clip from beyond the arc.   And he’s not a one-trick pony, having improved considerably both getting to the basket and finishing once he’s there.   A strong athlete and a willing defender, Meeks would be a considerable upgrade on and alternative to Ray Allen when Miami can’t find somewhere to hide him on defense.

2.  OKC.  Westbrook’s iffy knee is about all there is not to like about the Thunder’s trajectory this season.  Presti couldn’t have hoped for better contributions from Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, and Steven Adams, each of whom is just scratching the surface of his potential.  Moreover, it’s clear that Durant learned from his playoff failures a season ago, and has responded with superior play-making ability and a fiery resolve that he’d yet to demonstrate.  If Russ is healthy, they’re the favorites.  They can cement that status by swinging this deal for Thaddeus Young.

The Sixers might insist that Jeremy Lamb replace Jones and Roberson to compliment OKC’s first rounder, but either package returns the sort of young wing talent that it needs to rebuild around MCW and Nerlens Noel.  They won’t get a lottery pick for Young, whose $8.5 million salary runs for a year after Perkins’ deal expires.

OKC’s motivation is obvious: the very thought of Young running on the wing with KD, Russ, and Jackson sends shivers down opposing GMs spines.

If Presti still needs redemption for letting Harden slip away, this is it.  KD and Russ are ready to win now.  This move sends a message that OKC is all in.

3. Indiana.  This group has the look.  They’ve had their trials against Lebron and co., and know what it takes to beat them.  Despite a bit of regression to the mean from Paul George after his white-hot start this season, he’s proven to be a top ten player.  Couple his ascendance with Lance Stephenson’s breakout campaign, and you can see why Indian’s optimistic that it has the goods to get by Miami without making a move.

So close to reaching its goal, Indiana would be wise to shore up its backcourt playmaking, which suffers without Stephenson on the court.  A sixth man who can score in bunches and create off the dribble would be the ideal final piece to the puzzle.  Alec Burks is their guy.

Again, nobody wants to move first round picks, but at 28-30, this pick is highly unlikely to contribute at a high level in the next season or two, if ever.   Utah’s stockpiling assets, and has been reluctant to commit to any of its pieces beyond Derek Favors long-term.   Turning a guy poised to hit restricted free agency in a year into a first round pick thus carries some obvious appeal to Utah.   And Burcs is just the sort of scorer and athlete that Indiana needs.  Capable of playing at the one, two, and three, Burcs would be an intriguing addition to Indiana’s versatile core.  You have to think Vogle gets more from him than Ty Corbin.  Finally,  Burcs is Lance insurance.  If (gulp) Lance gets a contract to big for Indiana to swallow, Burcs has the type of talent that would help to offset his loss, and keep Indiana’s window open.

By The Numbers: History’s Most Egregious All-Star Snub

"But why?" asks Davis.  I don't know AD, I just don't know.

“But why?” asks Davis.  Wish I knew buddy. 

Forgive the fans.  Many of whose votes for All-Star starters are motivated more by homerism, player reputation, and preference for style over substance.   But the coaches (who fill out the seven remaining roster spots)?   Their decision that Anthony Davis isn’t one of the 12 best players in the west boggles the mind.  And I’m no Pelicans fan.  Strictly by the numbers, AD’s exclusion is the most egregious snub in the history of the All-Star game.

No player with a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 26.0 or higher has ever been excluded.  Davis’s current PER of 26.67 ranks fifth in the entire league, just shy of Chris Paul’s and Kevin Love’s ratings.  Only Lebron and Durant are markedly superior from a statistical perspective.

The coaches’ omissions of Brook Lopez in 2013, and Kevin Love in 2011 provide he only example of somewhat analogous injustices. Then sporting a 25.03 PER, after having been passed over initially, the league ultimately selected Lopez as a replacement for the injured Rajon Rondo. Apart from roughly commensurate PERs, Davis and Lopez have little in common.  Already among the game’s best defenders, metrics fail to capture AD’s impact on the court.  Conversely, Lopez’s PER is vulnerable to criticism on the basis of his subpar defense.

Love is the more apt comparison. Now a household name and consensus top 10 player, Kevin Love was almost as effective in 2011.  While leading the league in rebounding at the All-Star break, Love’s 25.41 PER rated fifth in the league, just Davis’s now does.   But upon adding to his slightly lower PER, Love’s vastly inferior defense  – even worse then, Love remains a net minus on that end of the floor – and his team’s absolutely abysmal performance, even his exclusion appears reasonable stacked up against AD’s snub.

Getting back to the rock solid case for Davis, it’s not merely that he’s unquestionably one of the 24 best players in world, let alone the league.  And to point out that he’s one of the 12 best players in the west fails to capture the absurdity of snubbing AD.   One of the ten best players in the entire league will be watching the game from home.  That should not happen.

Of course, it’s easy to identify guys having great seasons who could’ve made it.  When speaking of guys who should’ve made it, however, fairness requires identifying who should be replaced.

Who deserved it less?  Starting with guys at his position, Davis has substantially outperformed bigger names like Blake Griffin, Dirk, and Dwight.  From there, we move from the low hanging fruit.  Recognizing his minimal contributions in an injury ravaged season, Kobe’s went so far as to admonish voters to look elsewhere.   As a name du jour, Damian Lillard’s a less obvious candidate for replacement, but dig a little deeper and you’ll see a guy (whom I love, by the way) sporting a 18 PER (almost a full 10 points below Davis) who brings next to nothing defensively.

From there, the decisions become more difficult.   That said, Davis over Tony Parker still seems clear cut.  Parker’s advocates wield only the Spurs stellar record as a significant factor in the Frenchman’s favor.   But the Spurs are a machine.  Their success can hardly be attributed to a single, albeit significant part.  Parker also plays fewer minutes than Davis with inferior impact.  And again, while Parker’s not an abysmal defender, he’s probably a bit shy of league average.  Compare that to Davis’s tremendous impact on defense, and the argument for snubbing Parker in favor of Davis makes what is a difficult decision also the only logical one.

Cases could be made for Davis over Harden and Curry.   And while I’d be more or less comfortable with Davis replacing either, each is directly responsible for the his team’s substantially superior record.

In sum then, we have six guys who Davis has outperformed to a discernable degree, and two more roughly equally deserving.   In that light, Davis’s exclusion isn’t merely a snub, it’s an historical slap in the face with statistics to back it up.

 ***

Yeah, that expression's not helping.

Yeah, that expression’s not helping.

To a lesser degree, the coach’s omission of DeMarcus Cousins also merits discussion. Many of the same arguments for Davis apply with slightly lesser force to Boogie. His stats are only marginally less impressive, and his team’s record just a bit worse.  Indeed his 26.67 PER ranks sixth in the league, and provides powerful support for the argument that he, too should’ve filled one of those seven spots.

Cousins runs into trouble with his reputation as, well, how can I put this lightly, insane?  He’s a bad teammate, and a coach’s worst nightmare.  To compound that effect, his reputation took a big hit league wide based on his disturbingly volatile presence at the last Team USA camp in front of the universally well-regarded Coach K and Jim Boeheim, among others. Still, Cousins has been too good not to make it.

As much as I respect Dirk, it’s not as though the Mavs are setting the league on fire.   They’re headed precisely nowhere, and can’t overlook the wide individual performance gap on the basis that Dirk’s helped drive Dallas to mediocrity.   So there’s one name.

Despite Lillard’s critical contributions to Portland’s surprisingly stellar play, Aldridge is the Blazer’s centerpiece.  In a close case, I’d give Lillard the nod over Cousins based on the impact of his contributions.  Like Davis, however, Lillard’s matchup with Boogie doesn’t leave us splitting hairs.  Cousins hasn’t been putting up stats on a bad team, he’s dominating the league with little help from a dismal supporting cast in Sacramento. Boogie gets the nod.

Lost in Translation: Why Haven’t the NFL’s Prevailing Strategies Found Success in the NBA?

Kaepernick-Wilson

Sunday’s Slaughter provided conclusive evidence in support of a position that had been gathering momentum all-season long.  Save those whose vision was blurred by Manning’s tantalizing season (mind you, this was no small number), believing that Denver’s offensive juggernaut could disprove the fundamental rule that defense wins championships in the NFL – the savvier school of thought knew all too well that the Super Bowl was decided by roughly 10 inches.  That is, the distance by which Kaepernick’s potentially game winning throw to Crabtree came up short..  Even before then, Seattle and San Francisco stood apart from the rest of the league.   Several distractions cast a fog over that reality, among them the star power of Brady, Manning, and Brees, the inescapable suspicion that Belicheck always has another card to play, the fortuitous return of Aaron Rodgers to host a playoff game on the frozen tundra,  the untested ceiling of Cam and Riverboat Ron, legitimate questions about the Niners receiving corps and the Seahawks entire cast on offense not named Marshawn Lynch.

By halftime, however, we saw all of those distractions for exactly what they were: decoys from the fundamental dynamic of the 2013-2014 season.   It was always about the Niners and Seahawks.

Last year Russell Wilson played for $544,868.  Colin Kaepernick earned just $607,922.  This year, Wilson’s cap number was a little lower, while Kaepernick’s a tick higher.  Those bargains have enabled the Niners and Seahawks to spend heavily elsewhere, allotting precious cap space to defenses, offensive lines, and skill positions loaded with blue and red chippers.  After the latest NFL collective bargaining agreement reversed the trend of ever increasing rookie contracts, players like Wilson and Kaepernick are now the NFL’s most valuable commodity.  Yes, more valuable than Brady, Manning, and Rogers, each of who may be a superior quarterback, but would you rather have Rogers and the Packers porous defense or Kaepernick and the Niners vaunted D?  In today’s NFL, elite, cheap rookie labor is king.

Whether it’s Percy Harvin, Anquan Boldin, Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, or Anthony Davis, these are players whom Seattle and San Francisco seemingly should not have been able to sign, acquire, or extend without cutting back elsewhere on the roster.  Yet, each team did so with impunity.  Add Harvin, keep Rice.  Extend Davis, and still have enough left over for Mike Iupati’s extension later this year.  Keep Willis and Bowman, Thomas and Sherman.  You get the point.  The NFC West behemoths dominated the league by leveraging their advantage of cheap, elite level talent at the game’s most important position.

So I hypothesized that this strategy would – if it had not already – become a staple of roster building strategies throughout the NBA.  Snag stars capable of delivering championship level performances while still on their rookie contracts, and use the copious remaining cap space to surround them with the best talent they’ll player with for the rest of their careers.   To say the least, that hasn’t happened.   I spoke of inklings that perhaps Cleveland would pursue such a course, surrounding Kyrie Irving and its bevy of cheap young talent with vets like Bynum and Jack.   I suggested that New Orleans appeared to be charting much the same path, adding expensive perimeter talent to flank its burgeoning superstar, Anthony Davis.   To a lesser degree, parallels could be drawn to Washington and Golden State too.

In no instance has it produced the results each team’s management must have had in mind.  At this juncture, it’s more observation than insight: I’m not sure why this strategy produced such success in the NFL, and so very little in the NBA.   So I’m turning to a lifeline.  Fellow NBA enthusiasts, this a call for your input: I’ll post the best three rationales I receive by Monday.

Value or Vanity? Advanced Metrics Show All-Star/Salary Correlation

allstar

Since the NBA implemented online voting to select All-Star Game starters, 10 of the game’s 24 selections have been decided by a process charitably depicted as somewhat unfair.   In reaching more fans, the NBA naturally reached less sophisticated fans.  Voting became more about home town (or country) pride and player reputation than single season performance.  Fans’ 2010 selection of a washed-up Allen Iverson is a case in point.  But it’s not just the fans.  It’s the league, the coaches, and the players too.

The league’s steadfast refusal to adjust roster composition rules to reflect the game’s evolution has given us the priceless, unintentionally comedic performances of Chris Kaman and Mehmet Okur awkwardly lumbering up the court for 2 minutes as token centers.  It is no wonder then that coaches have become reluctant to corral a decent effort from their troops.  And add to the voting troubles a mutually reinforcing trend towards lackadaisical effort – particularly on defense – more or less evident in games dating back to the mid 90s, and what you have is a game of no particular consequence.  It decides neither the best conference nor the best player.  In such a meaningless game, no coach wants to  his star(s) playing big minutes.  And despite the incentive to exhaust stars from competing teams, no coach in history has dared to try as much.  Collectively, those factors have combined to reduce not only the significance of the game itself, but the cache once attached to being chosen to play in it.

Lebron might want to send Kobe an extra copy of the “no-defense” memo.

Not so fast, suggests this article.  Maybe after overrating the credential for decades, we’ve begun to underestimate its significance.  Drawing on advanced metrics, ESPN Insider’s Kevin Pelton delivers a thorough analysis concluding that all-star selections are predictive of free-agent salaries.  In the case of Lance Stephenson, he projects the difference between the performing at the glitzy weekend and sitting at home to be worth roughly $4.5 million:

Using the last five years’ worth of free agency, I attempted to predict first-year salary (adjusted for increases or decreases in future years) as a function of their stats the previous season. Seven factors ended up having a statistically significant relationship with salary: my wins above replacement metric, minutes per game, points per game, height (a positive), age (a negative), whether the player was a restricted free agent (surprisingly, restricted free agents made more than expected based on their stats) and whether the player was an All-Star the previous season. Together, they explain more than 70 percent of the variation in player salaries.

Because these factors match up better with the square root of salary — that is, salary grows exponentially with improvement in these factors more than it does on a consistent, linear basis — it’s difficult to put an exact dollar value on an All-Star appearance. But when Stephenson’s current stats are plugged in (projected to a full season), the model suggests his value would be about $8 million on the open market. If he makes the All-Star team, however, that figure jumps all the way to $12.4 million.”

Impressive work, to say the least.  Nonetheless, I find it difficult to believe that such an arbitrary difference would factor so heavily in the valuation of  a player by a market composed of increasingly rational decision makers.  Pelton’s model demonstrates that over a larger sample, all-star selections correlate with higher salaries.  Thus, it produces this rule: an all-star appearance increases a player’s expected salary.  Before applying it rigidly, however, consider whether we might be confusing cause with effect.  Even accounting for biased ballots and diminishing prestige, the All-Star game never excludes more than 3 of the league’s top 15 players (even that would be an anomaly.)  Naturally, the best players tend to earn the highest salaries — not because they’re all stars, but because they’re expected to deliver elite level performance over the duration of their contracts.

Expected performance level is the predominant factor in player salaries.  All Star appearances are a by-product of that performance, both unnecessary and insufficient to gauge its contours.  In a given year, salary expectations would be influenced by a 24 player subgroup of the top 35ish players in terms of expected performance.  Naturally then, that subgroup will tend to exhibit higher salaries than a cross-section of players outside of it, which could include a maximum of 11 from the league’s best 35 players.  This does not mean that all-star status increases player value.  Rather, because it largely overlaps with high expected performance, it strongly suggests that a player merits top level compensation.

A Winning Strategy to Overcome Indecision: Solving What Ails the Lakers

© LA Times/Mike Bresnahan

Even before Kobe’s knee injury and the rapidly approaching comical injuries resulting in a revolving door backcourt rotation, consensus held that the Lakers had painted themselves into a corner.  With Kobe’s extension, we were led to believe, LA was left to pursue one item from a menu of more or less unpalatable options.  Max out Carmelo and surround two aging gunslingers with D-league talent.  Extend Pau and watch the Laker duo age gracefully in pursuit of an eight seed.  Preserve cap space and cross your fingers that the cavalry, in the form of Westbrook and/or Kevin Love, arrive to save LA several years from now.  Of course, Kobe’s rusty form and subsequent injury did nothing to discourage those projections.

Admittedly, those championship parades feel far more distant than 2010.  But I can’t agree with these shrilly, dire analyses.  Largely built upon unwarranted assumptions wrapped in faulty reasoning wrapped in groundless predictions, the doom and gloom casts a fog concealing both the biggest threat to the Kobe era and the considerable upside for the Lakers should they overcome it. The Lakers’ problem is not Kobe’s extension.  Nor is evidence remotely close to sufficient to conclude that his performance will decline to the degree that it will become one.  And the deduction that LA is no longer a free agent magnet simply does not follow from Dwight’s departure.  The paralysis of indecision is the Lakers true nemesis.  For Lakers fans, the good news is that the troublesome degree of uncertainty can be reduced rather easily.  The bad news is that the decision-makers have shown little inclination to to do so.

Sacrificing Certainty for Flexibility

“I don’t know where we’re going to be six weeks from now and certainly we’re going through a very rough time right now, but we’re going to monitor the team closely and look for opportunities to help the team either in the short run or the long term.” – Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak.

The dance that began with Dwight persists today.  Without his long-term commitment LA could not, or more accurately, would not pursue any particular result with the vigor required to achieve it.  Hedging against being spurned by the big man, LA was reluctant to move Gasol.  With that ship having sailed, and the Achilles torn, the Lakers’ trajectory became no clearer.  A steadfast resolve to avoid commitments beyond this season signaled intent to rebuild.  LA suggested just the opposite by adding to Kobe, Nash, Blake, Meeks, Hill and Gasol productive veterans (Chris Kaman, Nick Young, and Jordan Farmar) and talented, if disappointing youth (Wes Johnson and Xavier Henry).

From any perspective but that of those with access to the master plan (assuming there is one), it would appear that the Lakers wanted to have their cake and eat it too.  LA preserved both its cap space and its punchers chance to make noise in the West in the event that Kobe and Nash returned to form. And this is understandable. You try telling Kobe that after months of intense recovery, he’ll be spending his 18th season toiling amidst the league’s bottom dwellers. But in the NBA, to waver in commitment to any one mission is to play with fire.

It should be no surprise then, that the Lakers are getting scorched.  With and without the Mamba, Blake and Farmar managed the reigns well enough to ensure that the upstart trio of Young, Meeks, and Henry scored often enough to make the impressive contributions of Hill, Johnson, and Sacre just enough to offset a mostly lackluster campaign from Gasol.  And give credit where it’s due: with more pieces that fit-in, and commit-to his offense, D’Antoni’s system looks surprisingly credible.  For all of those promising developments, the Lakers remained on the periphery in the West, with the consolation that the East’s third seed would be within reach.  Injuries to Farmar and Henry have made those seem like the good ‘ol days, as LA has fell farther and farther away from the playoffs.

Succinctly put, the Lakers are in no man’s land.  But they’ve maintained their treasured flexibility.

Flexibility facilitates acquiring assets.  It is not an asset in and of itself.  So while the Lakers backup claims to agility by straddling the line of relevance, the savvier among fans have been left to alternate between rooting for a surprisingly lovable cast and finding satisfaction in its failures.  The salient question becomes, are Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak doing the same thing?  I cannot say.

If they are inclined in a particular direction, this season has been a miserable failure.  Pau Gasol’s on-again-off-again availability is a microcosm of the alternating direction of LA’s season.  For all the respect he deserves, so too is Nash’s will he or won’t he (to be clear, let’s hope he wont) rehabilitation.  Maybe it’s all been a preamble or an experiment, the end of which will reveal the road ahead.

One thing is certain: if LA was waiting for some sort of sign, a guiding light to emerge in the distance, we’ve seen it.  Forgive them for resisting Kobe’s first misfortune, but not his second.   Injuries to all three of its point guards aren’t a flickering light, they’re a damn lighthouse.

For all of my conviction about the optimal decisions then, it may indeed be curious that I wouldn’t fault LA for pursuing just the opposite course. (Such a course both merits and needs its own post, which is forthcoming later this week.) The only truly bad outcome is achieved by failing to make any decision at all.

The Optimal Path Forward

At 10-24, LA stands six games out of the playoffs, and possesses the 10th best odds of landing the top pick in the lottery.  Mt. Everest six games is not (it feels like LA should be no less than ten games out), but things are likely to get worse before they get better with tough opponents and a long-road trip beckoning prior to the arrival of backcourt reinforcements.  A realistic record of 3-7 in the next 10 games likely would push LA past the brink of recovery.

The flirtation with Cleveland about swapping Pau for Bynum suggests sobriety is gaining momentum at Lakers’ headquarters, and these next ten games should be a splash of cold water to Kupchak’s face.  It just ain’t happening this year.

It’s one thing to recognize it, and another to do something about it.  Five steps comprise the optimal course for the Lakers.

First, move Pau to a contender.  We know they tried.  And without knowing precisely what they sought from Cleveland, I won’t criticize them for seeking an asset in addition to cap relief.   LA gets cap relief (but no shelter from the repeater’s tax) by doing nothing.  Cleveland needed to kick in something.  Of course that didn’t make sense for a team with struggles of its own.

LA needs to focus on contenders, for whom Pau could tip the competitive balance this spring, and thus place a higher value on his services than also-rans like the Cavs.  Just don’t tell that to Tom Haberstroh who suggests that the Lakers trade Pau for a 2nd round pick.  (Gee golly Tom, you really think we could?)  No, neither Kevin Love nor a lottery pick are on the table.  That doesn’t mean that OKC wouldn’t consider this deal that beats the hell out of a 2nd round pick: (Some variation of Pau for Perkins, Thefalosha, and a #1 pick).

And I’d bet good money that Indiana’s not hanging up the phone when Mitch makes this offer of Pau and Meeks for Granger, Scola, and Indiana’s 1st rounder.  Not only would Gasol mark a major upgrade over Mahinmi and Scola, imagine what Frank Vogel could do defensively with two 7 footers around the basket.  No one is inclined to part with a first in this draft, but that sentiment has to change if we’re talking about becoming the title favorite. (I’d suggest this move does just that for the Pacers.)  That same logic applies to the San Antonio, where I’d expect Pau to thrive amidst all the quick reads and ball-sharing, who could package a first rounder with the no longer effective Ginobili, Boris Diaw, and Matt Bonner (all three would be prime candidates for buy-outs.)

Second, move Jordan Hill.  To where, it matters not so much here.  Hill’s a favorite of Lakers fans, but two compelling reasons justify moving him:  (1) He has a $7 million cap-hold this offseason, and (2) Mike D’Antoni doesn’t like him.  The first is a fact.  The second is subjective, but after withering under D’Antoni in New York and seeing his minutes come and go this season, I feel confident about the second too.  Unless LA hires a coach who will play Hill, there’s no way he merits restricting that amount of cap space this summer.  LA could reduce that hold by signing him to, let’s say, a more reasonable $4 million/year deal.  But if you’re Jordan Hill, why would you sign up for more bench time when you could easily get that deal elsewhere?

Given his strong play when he’s seen steady minutes, Hill undoubtedly has value around the league.  LA needs to cash in on it.  He’d fit well in Miami, which needs a rebounder with the athleticism and jump-shot to play its style of defense and offense, respectively.  Maybe Miami refuses this deal including the expiring deals of Rashard Lewis and James Jones, plus its #1 pick (which almost certainly will fall between 27 and 30).  But maybe not.  Things aren’t clicking for Minnesota’s frontcourt rotation – could Alexy Schved or Dieng be had?  Check in across town with the Clips, who are desperate for some front line help.   OKC, Portland, and San Antonio could also use an infusion of energy at the 4.   Dangle him out there, and I think LA comes away with either a very late 1st rounder, an early 2nd, or a decent young player without the problematic cap hold that Hill has.

Third, decide who’s staying and move those who are not.  LA can fill in the mid to back end of its roster next season with several guys on expiring deals who’ve either exceeded expectations or at least proven worthy of minutes this season.  That group includes Nick Young, Jodie Meeks, Xavier Henry, Wes Johnson, Jordan Farmar, Steve Blake, and Chris Kaman (perhaps even add Kendall Marshall to that list).  The downside to especially strong showings by Young, Meeks, Johnson, and Henry is that LA probably couldn’t, and almost certainly won’t keep all four with Kobe due to return at the wing.   The same logic applies to its three point guards, albeit to a lesser extent.

Make no mistake; these guys are crucial components to rebuild the Lakers.   Except for Blake, each has a cap hold right (or in Young’s case, and option) near $1 million.  That allows LA to use its cap space to acquire higher level players before resigning these guys to more lucrative contracts via Bird rights.  I’d rate the importance of retaining these players in this descending order:

(1)  Wes Johnson.  His stats don’t warrant the top spot, but it’s too hard to find young, talented players with his length, athleticism, and defensive mindset who don’t need the ball to compliment Kobe.

(2)  Nick Young.  His ability to create his own shot gives him a slight edge as a bench scorer over Meeks.

(3)  Xavier Henry.  Just scratching the surface of his potential, I’d hate to see this two way player realize it elsewhere.

(4)  Jordan Farmar.  Creates, shoots from distance, and defends at average to a little above average levels.  Those guys don’t grow on trees.

(5)  Jodie Meeks.  I’m thinking Meeks is the casualty, despite a career year and his outstanding fit in D’Antoni’s scheme.  Could come down to $$$ between him and Young.

(6)  Steve Blake. Unless he’s willing to take a home town discount for say $3 million/yr., his health has been too unreliable to make him worth what his production this season would seem to merit.  A cumbersome cap number of $7.6 million means LA could be forced to relinquish his Bird rights if he doesn’t take such a discount almost immediately after free-agency opens.

(7)  Chris Kaman.  He’s looked serviceable in limited minutes, but can’t be considered part of the future.

Ideally, LA could choose any three of the four wings on that list.   If it’s Wes, Young, and Henry, all the better.  Some other combination won’t have earth moving consequences.   What’s important is that LA gauge both who it wants to resign and who it can resign.  Then, the rest, each of who have varying degrees of value, need to be moved.   Again, we’re not talking about swinging a deal for Utah’s 1st rounder or even a guy like Harrison Barnes.   Rather, until and unless someone gets desperate, or LA strikes a lopsided deal, we’re probably looking at 2nd round picks.  And again, LA needs to target teams that are a player or two away (or at least those who believe this to be the case.)

Indiana and Memphis both need another scorer on the perimeter.  Could LA interest them in Young or Meeks — and in Indian’s case, perhaps even in combination with Jordan Hill?   Then, we just might be looking at a very late 1st rounder.  Golden State and Minnesota would stand to improve from the presence of a healthy Steve Blake.  And there’s certainly no harm in finding out what exactly is the asking price for Dion Waiters.

A couple of deft moves would both bring back modest assets, and more importantly diminish LA’s performance this season. Which brings us to the next step.

Fourth, embrace the downward spiral.  Call it tanking, Riggin’ for Wiggins, Sorry for Jabari, Scandal for Randle, or Bleed for Emblid. (Thanks to Jalen for letting me borrow those.)  Call it pitiful.  Point out that it violates the spirit of the game.

The rules are what they are.  Teams must play within them, not within those that they wish existed.   So until the NBA does something to diminish the powerful incentive to avoid the middle, it’s irrational for a team like the Lakers that has zero chance to contend to strive for those 5-10 extra wins that will decrease the count of their Ping-Pong balls.

At present, nine teams have more Ping-Pong balls than LA.  Of them, it’s not hard to envision Detroit, Cleveland, and New York (whose pick goes to Denver) eclipsing LA in the standings based on the teams’ current trajectories.   That puts LA at #7.  That’s not a bad place to be with scouts generally in agreement that at least seven players – Wiggins, Parker, Randle, Emblid, Smart, Exum, and Gordon – have all-star potential.  Yet, I’d feel better if I could get somewhere between 1 and 4 both to get the better player and to protect against a diluted talent pool should some prospects elect to stay in school.   Only Milwaukee appears out of reach at seven games behind LA.  Philly, Utah, and Orlando boast superior talent, but will nonetheless very likely be formidable opponents in the race to the bottom.  That leaves Sacramento and Boston, the latter who now appear poised to max out in the loss column, and the former who seem less wed to the idea of another trip to the top of the lottery.

Parker-Randle-Wiggins

Realistically then, by moving Pau, Hill, and perhaps two more rotational players, and letting Kobe bide his time recovering, depending on how the lottery shakes out, LA stands to land a top 5ish pick.   Flank Kobe with Marcus Smart or Dante Exum.  Pass the torch to Wiggins or Parker. Snag Randle to play the Amare role for D’Antoni next season.  Let Emblid add to the lore of Laker big men.    In any event, it is no novel notion that LA’s future begins to look a whole lot brighter with a budding star on a rookie scale contract.

Fifth, spread the wealth.   Many an analyst espouse the wholly unsubstantiated, conventional wisdom that LA will either strike out or shackle itself with Carmelo and nothings else.  Events may conspire to make Carmelo part of the Lakers solution – I certainly wouldn’t write it off.   But to characterize the Lakers’ plight as Carmelo or bust is about three bridges too far for this writer.

For one, it requires indulging the assumption that Kobe’s extension will hamstring the Lakers ability to add multiple talents.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you about the ensuing rant:

Color me a contrarian.  I’m good with Kobe’s extension.   Sure, as a Laker fan, I would’ve preferred to see Kobe take a bit less.  Candidly, however, any rationale Lakers fan should prefer to see Kobe take a deal for the vet’s minimum, leaving an extra $22 to fill out the roster around him.  That line of thinking extends to any star player on any team in any sport: If the goal is to win a championship, signing premier talent on the cheap is the best way to assure it.

It follows that any star player who cares only about championships should sign for the minimum salary to optimize his odds of winning.  If that’s what Lebron wants, he should join the Pacers for the minimum and make his promise of “…Not 4, Not 5, Not 6” titles a realistic prospect.  In so much as it might be selfish to take $23.5, it’s equally so for Lakers fans (and ownership) to ask for a tremendous discount.

I would have preferred an extension that paid him $18 million per season.   Asking for a deeper discount than that for a still great player whose global draw remains unmatched simply is unrealistic.   What we’re bickering about then, is a difference somewhere near $5 million.   That’s not nothing.  But it also doesn’t transform a great deal into the franchise-crippling contract its bee portrayed to be.  Take a closer look at the Lakers’ cap situation, and you’ll see why.

Let’s start from the top.  Next summer, the salary cap is projected to be at roughly $63.5 million.   Kobe’s cap number next year will be $23.5 million.  That leaves $40 million.  Nash is somewhat of a variable quantity.  If he doesn’t play this year, he could pursue a medical retirement, the terms of which would require payment of his full salary, but count zero of it for cap purposes. Even without that windfall, LA has the “stretch” provision available which allows it to spread Nash’s cap number next year across the following two seasons, netting a reduction from $9 million to $3 million next year.  That leaves LA with $37 million.

Not to be forgotten, Robert Sacre’s $900,000 must be subtracted.  From that realistic number of $36 million, it remains to deduct cap holds.  Here’s the cap holds for LA’s remaining players: (Note: generally, the cap hold for each of 12 roster spots is the greater of $500,000 or a specific player’s cap-hold.  The rules for calculating cap holds are complex, and can vary significantly from player to player.  To see how I’ve reached these figures, see Larry Coon’s discussion on cap holds here. And a big thanks to Eric Pincus at the LA Times for helping me with the rules’ intricacies.)

Pau Gasol: $20.2; Steve Blake: $7.6; Jordan Hill: $6.6; Chris Kaman: $3.8; Jodie Meeks: $2; Nick Young: $1; Ryan Kelly: $1

(Wesley Johnson, Jordan Farmar, Xavier Henry, Kendall Marshall): $900,000

Pau’s not coming back at that number (or perhaps any number).  Blake and Hill each will either agree to a more reasonable figure on the eve of free-agency, or see their rights relinquished.  I assume the latter.  Ditto for Kaman.  Since Young has an option, his cap hold remains low, even if he’s unlikely to exercise it.

And let’s assume that LA keeps the rights to four players from the group of Meeks, Kelly, Johnson, Farmar, Henry, and Marshall.   That’s roughly $4 million, from which must be subtracted the minimum roster spot holds of $500,000 per player, or $2 million.  LA is now $33 million under the cap .  To complete accounting for cap holds, suppose LA picks between 3 and 8 in the draft.  That pick carries an average cap hold of roughly $3 million.  Now, with Kobe, Sacre, Young, lottery pick X, and retained players A, B, C, and D, the Lakers have eight players, and four roster spots that collectively amount to a $2 million cap hold.

After all of these transactions, the Lakers have more than $28 million left over to spend on free agents.  Hence, Kobe’s contract hardly leaves LA in dire straights.  Rant concluded.

With $28 million in its war chest, it is true that LA could afford just one max player.  Carmelo, for instance, could command $24 million.  Given the reigns, I’d prefer to divide that $28 million amongst three impact players.  Here’s who I have in mind.

#1 (With a Bullet): Lance Stephenson.  Indiana’s bumping up against the tax even after shaving off the $14 million salary of Danny Granger who’s sure to be elsewhere.  Lance has played himself into the 8 figure conversation — would the small market Pacers go deep in to the tax to pay him market value?  I’m not so sure.  Avoiding a heavy tax bill would mean moving another big contract.  The downside of Larry Legend’s shrewd signings is that all of his players who command big money – David West, George Hill, Roy Hibbert, and Paul George – are also critical to the team’s success.  Entering this season, perhaps Lance returns at a slight discount of $6 million for his mentor (Larry Bird).   It’s harder to see him walking away from – or the Pacers matching – a Godfather offer in the neighborhood of $12-$14 million from the Lakers.

New York Knicks v Indiana Pacers - Game Six

#2 Reggie Jackson.   This scenario repeats the strategy of poaching a capped out, small-market team’s emerging talent.   OKC’s maxed out with Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka, not to mention the Perkins albatross.  Even if they could afford to pay Jackson, they might be better off investing that money at a position that Westbrook doesn’t play for 40 minutes a night.   An offer of $7-9 million lands the defensive ace and uber-athlete LA needs at point guard.  To those less well acquainted with Jackson’s game, allow me to introduce you:

#3 Gordon Hayward.  Slotting Hayward third results more from his attainability than his desirability.  As a restricted free agent, teams pursue him with some peril in the form of tied up cap space.  Having doled out big money to Favors and with a likely high draft pick, Enes Kanter, and Trey Burke more or less entrenched as part of its core, it’s unclear how far Utah’s willing to go to keep Hayward.   Plus, Boston’s rumored to be enamored with the guy, and will have the space to make a big time offer, not to mention the allure of playing for his college coach, Brad Stephens.  Based on pure speculation, I predict that it’ll take $15 to pry him away from Salt Lake City.

#4 Evan Turner.  Philly’s tearing down the house and rebuilding around a core of MCW, Noel, and its two 1st rounders next year, one of whom is nearly certain to be a blue-chip prospect.  I doubt that a big pay day for Turner fits in to those plans. One reason for caution here: Turner’s on  horrible team, keeps the ball a lot, and thus may have inflated stats that could lead to an inflated contract. At $7-8 million, he’s worth the risk.  Any more than that could be cause for regret.

#5 Kyle Lowry.  In the process of turning in a career season, Lowry’s price no doubt has increased substantially.  And it’s not totally clear what the Raptors are doing.  We know they love the big guy, like Terrence Ross, overpaid an improving DeMarr Derozan, and not much else.   If they’re rebuilding, Lowry’s gettable.  If they think they have something, continuity might make Lowry more valuable to Toronto than the rest of the league.  If they can’t bring Jackson into the fold, pull the trigger on Lowry at $7 million per, but no more.

#6 Big Man X.  Unless Joel Emblid or Randle falls into the Lakers’ lap, they’ll need to replace the presumed to be departing Pau, Hill, and Kaman.  Spencer Hawes and Marcin Gortat head the list of free agent big men, while guys like Channing Frye, Andre Blatche, Emeka Okafor, Ekepe Udoh, and Dante Cunningham fill out a something less than stellar class.  Depending on how the chips fall with its top five targets, LA could either land one of the two big fish or be scraping the bottom of the barrel.

#7 Fillers.   Lakers fans wouldn’t mind a Trevor Ariza reunion, and Rodney Stuckey, Darren Collison, and Aminu likewise present desirable targets for the middle of the roster.

The impact of $28 million wisely spent is nothing to sneeze at.  In an optimal scenario LA’s 2014-2015 roster looks like this :

PG: Reggie Jackson ($8 million), Jordan Farmar, Kendall Marshall

SG: Lance Stephenson ($13 million), Nick Young, Xavier Henry

SF: Kobe Bryant ($23.5 million), Wes Johnson

PF: Julius Randle ($3 million), Dante Cunningham ($2.5 million) Ryan Kelly

C: Spencer Hawes ($7 million), Robert Sacre

(*Note: players without a salary figure carry roughly a $1 million cap hold.  We’re not assuming that each resigns for that amount — because it owns their Bird rights, LA can exceed the cap to bring them back on more lucrative deals.)

Of course, it’s more likely than not that LA will draft someone other than Randle, whom most project to be a top five pick.  Correspondingly, the optimal roster fluctuates depending on who the Lakers draft (e.g., Marcus Smart means no Reggie Jackson, Joel Emblid means no Spencer Hawes, etc.).  But the possibilities created by those shifting pieces still harbor great upside.  Keep it to yourselves Lakers fans, and LA just might take the league by surprise.

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