Troy’s NBA Playoff Top Ten

LeBron James, NBA, NBA Bubble, NBA Playoffs

1.These teams are tough. With apologies to Toronto, the remaining four NBA playoff teams have been the most resilient, tenacious organizations in the bubble. Countless players and coaches have stressed the challenges everyone is facing in Orlando. Sequestered for three months, away from family and friends, normal stolen from you, weighs on the mind. The playoffs wear on players in normal circumstances. The mental challenges faced, and defeated, by these guys is inspiring. Gordon Hayward missed the birth of his fourth child, and first son, on Tuesday. Can you imagine? These remaining teams are here because they fight. They assume nothing. The drive within Los Angeles, Denver, Boston, and Miami is mammoth. It’s the reason this year’s winner belongs with the greats.

2. Now ahead 3-1 in the series, Miami’s first Finals’ appearance since 2014 is looming. Jimmy Butler is the heart, Bam Adebayo is the fight. Goran Dragic re-established his scoring abilities from a few years ago. But the piece that’s made them a championship contender is Tyler Herro. With Miami sputtering in Game 4 on offense, Herro saved them off the bench, scoring 37 and hitting 5-10 from deep, many with a hand in his face or off the dribble. Herro took over the Heat offense, running pick and rolls with Bam for easy mid-range jumpers, layups, and open threes. While Butler has shown the ability to take over in crunch time, his shot isn’t reliable. Herro’s is. Now that he’s shown capable of running an offense, something not seen in the regular season, Miami’s options widen. He’s fearless.

3. The rookie has been a revelation, but the MVP of the Eastern Conference Finals is Bam Adebayo. He leads the team in rebounds, steals, and blocks in the series and is second in scoring and assists. Adebayo snarls rebounds in traffic, keeping Boston’s small but athletic wings off the boards. His defense is unassailable. The block in Game 1 against Jayson Tatum is legendary, but his ability to guard 1-5 changes how opponents can attack them. Miami’s sat in a zone defense this series with Bam protecting the back line. He’s so long and quick that he’s able to run the entire baseline, contesting corner 3’s. But his strength is keeping Boston’s drivers from the bucket. Kemba Walker, Tatum, and Jaylen Brown are hesitant to attack the basket, settling for 3’s and pull up jumpers. Adebayo has shut down their offense and led his team to their 3-1 advantage.

4. So what’s left for the Celtics? They attacked the zone in Game 3 with a balanced offense. Four guys- Tatum, Brown, Walker, and Marcus Smart– scored at least 20. But their passivity returned on Wednesday. They shot 30 free throws in Game 3, 21 in Game 4. Tatum has to forget Bam and attack. Shut out in the first half Wednesday night, Tatum exploded for 28 in the second half. He can’t zone out for halves at a time, however. He’s their star. Tatum has only taken 9 free throws in the last two games. He needs at least that many in Game 5. Boston’s offense had success when they fed him the ball at the foul line, in the middle of the zone, with room for him to operate. From there, he can put pressure on Miami with his ability to shoot, drive, and dish. But he has to be a willing participant. We’ll find out if he’s ready for the next step on Friday.

5. And now that Gordon Hayward has returned from injury, Boston needs to play their version of the Death Lineup more minutes. Miami has wonderful defenders, but Tyler Herro is still a rookie, Duncan Robinson is subpar, and Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder aren’t as quick as they once were. A lineup of Walker-Smart-Hayward-Tatum-Brown is athletic, long, and quick. All can shoot from three and handle the rock. They must put more pressure on Miami’s zone. Find the weak spots and attack. Down 3-1, it’s the only bullet they have to fire.

6. Anthony Davis’ three to win Game 2, along with his duel with Nikola Jokic down the stretch of that game, showed he can perform with the greatest on the playoff stage. But where’s the consistency? LeBron James needs Davis to be engaged for entire games. The Lakers’ roster isn’t good enough everywhere else for him to float. Zero rebounds in the first three quarters of Game 3? One at halftime of Game 4? That can’t happen. He shot 17 times on Tuesday. Again, this isn’t enough. LeBron has the weight of the offense on his shoulders. His other teammates cannot get their own shots, he has to create for them, except for AD. Davis must expedite his aggression from the tip. He attacked early last night, scoring 34 and getting to the line 14 times. More, please. When he drifts, he gives Denver a shot. A disruptive Davis is L.A.’s shot at a championship.

7. If/when the Lakers win the series, give an unheralded player award to Dwight Howard. Jokic is unstoppable, yet Howard’s physicality has made the Nugget center work. He’s played the foil, yelling at Jokic from the bench (Batman is coming for the Joker!) and trash talking him throughout games. He earned a start in Game 4 and rewarded coach Frank Vogel’s confidence in him with 12 points and 11 rebounds. L.A. struggled on the boards in Game 3 (losing the rebounding edge by 19), unacceptable for a team so big in the front court. His offensive rebounding and second chance points set the tone, along with AD’s outburst, for L.A.’s big early lead in Game 4. Howard doesn’t have a place against all opponents, but his size and athleticism, along with his defensive intelligence, works in certain match-ups. If they face the Heat in the Finals, his size will be vital against Adebayo.

8. Jokic and Jamal Murray have been spectacular all postseason. Murray has catapulted himself to another level in the NBA hierarchy, and Jokic has cemented himself as a top 5-10 player in the league. But the Nuggets need the others. Things got tough in Games 1 and 2 when the Murray-Jokic pick and roll was all Denver had to lean on. But they surged in Game 3 when Jerami Grant scored a playoff high 26. A second quarter wave led by Monte Morris (12 points) and Michael Porter Jr (5 points, 5 rebounds, 2 steals), with strong interior defense from Mason Plumlee pushed the Nugget lead to 10 at halftime, a cushion they needed all of during L.A.’s frenetic comeback attempt. Grant and Morris produced in Game 4 as well (17 and 12), but the Laker defense locked down the Nugget offense over the final 6 minutes while grabbing 3 crucial offensive rebounds. Denver is young. Their time is in front of them, but the missed opportunities in this series will haunt them.

9. Another comeback from a 3-1 deficit seems unlikely, so let’s marvel at a star’s formation. Jamal Murray, entering the playoffs, was a good scorer who lacked consistency. He’s a franchise cornerstone now, one of the best shot makers in the league. His playmaking has improved too, and the Nuggets will be a favorite for the title in 2021. Pick the prettiest from last night:

10. Billy Donovan accepting the Chicago Bulls’ head coaching position is perplexing. Donovan proved himself an outstanding NBA coach this year, leading an Oklahoma City team to a surprising playoff berth and pushing the Houston Rockets to seven games. But Oklahoma City is rebuilding, and Donovan had no desire to see the franchise through a ‘to the studs’ rebuild. So why Chicago? Philadelphia, Houston, Indiana, and New Orleans are all coach-less and farther along than a Chicago franchise that’s won 22 games each of the last two seasons. Lauri Markkanen is a nice stretch four, Zach LaVine is a scorer, Wendell Carter shows talent when he’s healthy, and Kris Dunn will make an All-Defense team. After that, it’s thin. LaVine can be special night to night, but he’s not a building block. So what’s the allure? His agent would have determined interest from the contenders before he decided not to return to OKC, right? That job looks better than the one he’s just taken, if nothing else than the stability in the front office. Donovan may regret the move north.

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

Troy’s NBA Playoff Top Ten

Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, NBA, NBA Bubble, NBA Playoffs

1.Before getting to the Conference Finals match-ups, let’s mention the buffoonery of the Los Angeles Clippers. While the Milwaukee Bucks’ exit from this year’s playoffs is embarrassing, perhaps they lost to a better team. The Clippers blew a 3-1 lead to a talented bunch, but Denver doesn’t possess the experience or skill of the Clippers. Kawhi Leonard was awful in Game 7, but the rest of his teammates stunk from Game 4 on. Paul George’s 10 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists would confuse if we hadn’t seen it before. George floats in and out of series and games. Worst of all, L.A. was the weaker squad. They looked scared in the 4th quarter of Game 7, passing up shots, turning the ball over, and careening it off the side of the backboard. The favorite to win the title, the Clippers asphyxiated themselves in the NBA bubble. So what’s next?

This ain’t it

2. Kawhi and George both have opt outs in their contracts after next year. The organization traded Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, along with 7 1st rounds picks or pick swaps for George to Oklahoma City last summer. The two combined to shoot 10-38 for 24 points in Game 7. The 2021 season is the biggest in Clipper history. What if they don’t win the title? What if they’re bounced out of the playoffs early, again? The future is a dark abyss if their two stars leave after next season. Rumors say Doc Rivers will be back for next season, but all options should remain on the table for Clippers GM Michael Winger and President Lawrence Frank. Trade Paul George? Trade Doc Rivers and elevate Ty Lue to the head job? They should find a trade for Lou Williams to bring in a play making ball handler. Kawhi’s great, but he isn’t in the LeBron James or Luka Doncic class with it comes to getting his teammates involved. Whatever they decide, next year is title or bust.

3. He started the season carrying a few extra pounds and heard about it. But Nikola Jokic just outplayed Kawhi Leonard in a playoff series. Jokic is an offensive mastermind. He’s a genius with the ball, already the greatest passing big of all-time and one of the best overall in the league today. His one-footed fall away jump shots are unguardable. He made 39.5% of his threes against L.A. He’s a wizard around the basket. Jokic never hurries. His fundamentals are exemplary; his footwork PhD level. And his defense, long the Achilles heel of his game, blossomed against the Clippers. His 3 blocks in Game 7 and general rim protection thwarted the Clippers multiple times as they tried to mount a comeback. Only 24, he and Jamal Murray (22) are the best young duo in the league, with Michael Porter Jr. threatening to make a homegrown Big Three in the Rocky Mountains. LeBron is another animal, and they’ll struggle to guard Anthony Davis, but Denver can compete.

4. The Nuggets are the deeper squad in the Western Conference Finals. But the Lakers have 2 of the 5 best players in the league. Gary Harris has been a man on defense since his return from injury and will have the responsibility, along with Jerami Grant, to slow LeBron. Harris lacks size, but they’ll take their chances that James doesn’t have the patience to post him on the block possession after possession. At least Denver has a few bodies to throw at him. AD is another problem. For all of his improvements against the Clippers, Jokic cannot handle Davis. Look for Paul Millsap, Grant, and more minutes from Mason Plumlee to slow the Lakers big man. Again, Davis must dominate. His size and athleticism wrecks opponents when he stays aggressive. He needs to avoid the playoff nerves that afflicted him earlier in the bubble. L.A. needs Rajon Rondo to continue shooting 3’s at a 44% clip as he did against Houston and providing play making off the bench. Who can knock down shots for them? Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, and Alex Caruso need to make shots. Denver will score. Can the Lakers keep up?

5. The two-man pick and roll between Jokic and Jamal Murray is Denver’s livelihood. Porter, a rookie, complained in the Clipper series that they go to it too much. But both players are so dynamic, Murray as a scorer and Jokic as a facilitator. Can you blame coach Mike Malone for wearing it out? L.A. has no one to guard Murray. If they aren’t careful with him, he could explode as he did in the Utah series. Whereas the Clips could throw great defenders with size in George, Leonard, and Pat Beverley at him, Danny Green is L.A.’s best bet, and he isn’t quick enough to keep up. LeBron could be an option at the end of games, but he’ll struggle against his speed too. How much will AD guard Jokic? One of the best defenders in the league, Davis can give the Nugget center trouble, but how many minutes does Frank Vogel want to subject him to endless screen and rolls? Denver’s hope is more minutes for JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard. Houston played the two bigs off the floor last series, and L.A. flourished. The Nuggets hope the Lakers go big again. Jokic will have his way with L.A’s centers. The Lakers should stay small and allow Markieff Morris to bang with Jokic. He’ll struggle too, but will get physical and pull him away from the basket on offense. McGee or Howard bails the Nuggets out.

6. To stay in the series, Denver needs excellent three ball shooting from Harris, Grant, Milsap, Craig, and scoring off the bench from Monte Morris and Porter. The Nuggets defense, as evidenced against the Clippers, has an on-off switch. Can they find consistency against the Lakers? Still, they’re so young. Michael Porter could be an asset on offense in this series, but his defensive lapses kill them. Denver’s best chance is to out shoot the poor shooting Lakers, not out of the question. But, yeah, LeBron. He’s proving in the bubble, as Kawhi, Giannis, and James Harden fall by the wayside, why he’s one of the greats. He’s too smart, and his athleticism remains at 35. L.A.’s roster isn’t as good, but it’s smarter and more experienced. Look for an outstanding series, but for the Lakers to find a way against the Nuggets in 6.

7. The Miami Heat are just tougher than Boston. Now with a 2-0 series lead, how does Boston adjust? They’re struggling with the Heat’s zone defense; Miami is long, rotates well, and seems to have arms in all passing lanes (19 deflections during Game 2). Boston gets tentative late, a problem that allowed Toronto back in the series prior. Jimmy Butler’s defense and hustle ended Game 2. He out-worked Boston twice for steals that led to fast break layups. On offense, Goran Dragic is carving the C’s. He worked Boston in the pick and roll late in Game 2, hunting Daniel Theis, took him to the rim for a layup, and hit a step back 3 on back-to-back possessions. Dragic gets overlooked, but he’s been the engine for Miami’s offense all playoffs (averaging 22 per). Others are getting credit, but don’t forget about Dragic. The Heat isn’t 2 games away from the Finals without him.

Butler’s hustle and D at the end of Game 2

8. While Kemba Walker finally showed for a playoff game (23 points in Game 2), Jayson Tatum has frozen at the end of both Heat games, failing to attack and taking bad jumpers. He only mustered 12 shots Thursday night. Tatum has to drive Boston’s offense and needs more aggression. Brad Stevens made a surprising move to get Enes Kanter minutes early, forcing Bam Adebayo to guard him on defense instead of roaming, where he’s most dangerous. Kanter had some nice moments, but Adebayo attacked him and Daniel Theis in the pick and roll in the third quarter, destroying Boston’s bigs and leading Miami back after a 13 point halftime deficit. It was an out of the box move that paid off early, but overall, Stevens is getting out-coached. The Celtics are still young, and though it showed against Toronto, Boston out-talented them. They need to find some aggression if they hope to get back in this series.

9. Marcus Smart man. He does everything. Championship teams all have Smarts on them. His flopping is infuriating, but that’s on the refs. The lunge to the floor in the waning seconds of Game 1 was egregious, but it earned the Celtics a free throw, and they wouldn’t have made it to overtime without it. His defense is sublime, and it’s because he outworks whoever he’s matched up against. He beats guys to their spot, gets low and swipes for steals, and reads the ball handler when he’s off ball for steals and interceptions. Now he’s hitting his 3’s. 36% from behind the arc in the playoffs, and 14.2 points per, Smart has become trustworthy on offense. Listen, does he make the right decision every time? Does he still dent backboards? Not when it matters. Smart is a money player who makes plays in crunch time. He, along with Jayson Tatum, is the reason the Celtics are still playing and can make the Finals.

10. Pat Riley finds men to play for him, and rookie Tyler Herro is another example. His two threes late in the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals aren’t shots rookies take, let alone make. 12 points, 11 rebounds, 9 assists in Game 1. 11, 9, and 5 in Game 2. His feel for the game is uncanny and Erik Spoelstra trusts him. Herro’s gained confidence in the playoffs, attacking the rim more often when he’s run off the 3 point line. His minutes are on the rise too, from the low 30s against the Pacers to nearly 40 in this series; he’s now able to at least hold his own on defense. Herro has become the Heat’s X factor, the piece many didn’t expect, but is pushing them toward the Finals. Herro wants the spotlight and isn’t afraid of anything on the court. His +50 in the playoffs proves it.

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

Troy’s Top Ten

LeBron James, NBA, NBA Bubble, NBA Playoffs

1.Did anyone expect LeBron James to lose a playoff series to James Harden and Russell Westbrook? Their Western Conference Semifinal isn’t over, yet the path it will take is clear. The Rockets are better behind the superstars and play a scheme that will overtake basketball soon. But playoff basketball is different, and LeBron is, well, King. He makes everyone on the floor with him 10-15% better with his vision, intelligence, and leadership. James knows what his team needs. In the first quarter of Game 2, following a poor Anthony Davis performance, LeBron fed AD, dishing three assists and getting him 11 early points. He knows he needs a confident Davis to win this series, and the title. In the fourth, after Houston flipped a 16 point deficit into a 2 point lead, LeBron took over, scoring 8 and locking down on defense (2 blocks and 2 steals). LeBron James is one of the three best in history because he knows the game better than everyone on, and off, the court.

Coach LeBron

2. L.A.’s biggest hole in the bubble had been a ball handler and creator to take some ball distribution off LeBron’s plate. Enter Rajon Rondo. It was easy to dismiss Rondo’s need for the Lakers; his minutes have been a debacle most of the season. But he’s played in tense games and won a title. An old head was the elixir L.A. needed. 18 assists and 6 steals in Laker wins in Games 2 and 3 gives James someone to turn the offense over to when required. Though older, his defense is important too. He’s long and smart, and gives Frank Vogel someone to put on opposing ball handlers. They’re thin on wing defenders, and while Rondo is slower now and more apt to fall asleep, when locked in, he can disrupt offenses. The Lakers need less help because of LeBron. If Rondo continues playing this way, their title hopes soar.

3. James Harden is eviscerating the Laker defense. No one can stay in front of him. When not facing double teams, he gets to the basket with ease, either drawing help for an open 3, or getting layups or foul shots. But when he sits, blah. Russell Westbrook scored 30 Tuesday night, but remains….. off. He can reach the bucket at will, but settles for too many 15 footers that ricochet off the basket, taking out family members in the audience. Whether his bout with COVID-19 or the quad injury lingers is anyone’s guess. Harden attacks more and creates better shots for his teammates. The Rockets have another victory in this series in them, maybe two. Their scheme gives the Lakers fits and has caused Vogel to lessen his JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard minutes (smart). But LeBron is smarter than them, and they know it.

4. The obituary on the pathetic performance of the Milwaukee Bucks in the bubble has been written. Now tough decisions by their front office are due. Will Mike Budenholzer be back? When offered the super max extension this off-season, will Giannis Antetokounmpo sign it? The second question is most important, but the first affects their title chances for next year more. Coach Bud is exceptional, yet lacks the flexibility to make the moves postseason basketball demands. He’s style is comparable to Dusty Baker. While both have had great success in the regular season, neither bends when it matters most. It’ll likely cost both titles. But if he’s fired, who gets hired? Ty Lue, Billy Donovan, Nate McMillan, and Kenny Atkinson are a few free agent coaches available, but are any good enough to push this roster into the Finals? Hard to say, but Jon Horst better make sure Giannis is on board with any decision he makes.

5. Antetokounmpo will be a two-time MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, and 4 time All NBAer at the end of this season. Any hopes of the Bucks ever winning another NBA title rest with him. Does he want to stay in Milwaukee? While other superstars have jumped to other organizations when failing with their current one, Giannis may be different. “Some see a wall and go in [another direction]. I plow through it. We just have to get better as a team, individually and get right back at it next season.” Doesn’t sound like someone ready to team up with Steph Curry or Luka Doncic. Here’s hoping he stays put. It would be refreshing to see a star fight for the franchise and city that drafted him and refuse the easier path. It would also make a title even more special to him.

6. Can the Miami Heat make the Finals? The Milwaukee match-up was tailormade for them. Jimmy Butler’s toughness, Bam Adebayo’s swiss army knifeness, and the 3 point shooting they can surround them with makes for an arduous opponent. Goran Dragic has averaged 21 per during the playoffs, giving the Heat an efficient, 3 level scorer, something Butler, for as great as he’s been, can’t provide. But will their defense hold up against either Boston or Toronto? They could build a wall and keep Giannis out of the paint, grinding Milwaukee’s offense to a halt because of his meager shooting touch. But their next opponent will have more weapons capable of attacking the rim and shooting from deep. Erik Spoelstra may need to shuffle his lineups. He’ll face tough offense vs. defense decisions in crunch time. Andre Iguodala or Duncan Robinson? How much to play Kendrick Nunn? Who will Kelly Olynyk guard if it’s Boston, and will they rather have Derrick Jones Jr.’s athleticism on the floor? He’ll need Jae Crowder to continue shooting well from deep. A 34% shooter from 3 during the regular season, Crowder is hitting 40% of his 3’s in the playoffs. His shooting allows Miami to have a plus defender in late without sacrificing floor spacing on offense. Spolestra is clever enough to find the answers, but the Heat will face more match-up questions in the Eastern Conference Finals than they did against the Bucks, making them the underdog.

7. Give it all to the Toronto Raptors. They aren’t as talented as the Celtics, but damn, their balls are steel. In eking out a victory in a for-the-ages Game 6 against Boston, the Raptors showed their hearts. Norman Powell hit two 3’s in the overtimes. Pascal Siakam struggled all game (and isn’t a number one option), yet drilled a huge jumper in the second overtime. And Kyle Lowry. Gone are the days in which Lowry fails in the playoffs. Lowry willed the Raps to the win on defense, frustrating bigger Celtics into turnovers late before swishing the de facto game winner over Kemba Walker in the second overtime. Toronto works for every ounce they get and showed again why they’re champions. A deserved winner of an exquisite playoff game.

8. Boston cannot lose this series. They’re the better team on both ends of the floor, yet are flunky when it gets tight. Their two main ball handlers in crunch time, Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum, are struggling in those moments. Tatum’s stat line last night is nice (29 points, 14 rebounds, career high 9 assists), but he turned the ball over late and was indecisive with the smaller Lowry on him on multiple occasions. Kemba was awful (5 points on 2-11 shooting). He created a few easy buckets on lobs to Daniel Theis but otherwise couldn’t find himself. And the Raptors are going at him on D. He’s Boston’s weak link on that end and will continue to be Toronto’s target. Walker has never played in NBA games with these stakes. The Celtics need him in Game 7.

9. Did Marcus Smart ever show? He was Boston’s best player in Game 6, cool amongst the chaos. Smart’s 6 threes interpolated his stellar triple double (23 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists). He and Jaylen Brown were the only Celtics ready for the moment. The C’s need better execution in crunch time, and if Kemba isn’t up to the task, put the ball in Smart’s hands. He’s maddening, unorthodox, and a winner. If his 3 ball is off, Toronto may go under screens against him, allowing them to work less on defense. But Smart finds a way. Brad Stevens is likely reticent to trust his playoff future to Smart, but he may have no other choice.

10. Clippers-Nuggets feels preordained because of Kawhi Leonard. He gets to wherever he wants on offense and takes whatever he wants of defense. His mid-range game is automatic (he’s shooting 69% on shots less than 10 feet from the rim). He’ll lead L.A. into the next round. The Clips don’t have an answer for Nikola Jokic, who may get them another victory in the series, but Kawhi, Paul George, and (mostly) Patrick Beverley have frustrated Jamal Murray. They’re too big and strong, and too good defensively for the 6’4” guard to shake. His eruption in the prior series guaranteed Doc Rivers would have a game plan designed to stop him. Gary Harris has been a bright spot for Denver’s future in this series, having a Fred VanVleet like resurgence following his return from injury. He’s shot 46% from 3 against L.A., up from 33% during the regular season, along with playing outstanding lock down defense on the Clipper wings. The Clippers are still sleep walking, however, coasting when possible and only motivated in near must win games. That won’t do against the Lakers. LeBron won’t allow them to cruise through any Conference Final games, and if they try, he’ll punish them. The time is now for the most talented team in the league to prove they can win the title.


Troy’s Top Ten

LeBron James, NBA, NBA Bubble, NBA Playoffs

1.It is past time for all of us to listen.

2. LeBron has arrived. James slow played the bubble, and even the first two games of the playoffs, but the 34,9, and 9 he’s averaging over the last two has awakened the Laker team, transforming into the title contender everyone expected. Without another competent ball handler, L.A. needs James to get quality looks for his underwhelming teammates. Rajon Rondo will return soon. Most teams would view those words as a threat, but for the Lakers he’s needed to run the offense in the minutes James sits. And what to make of Anthony Davis? He’s dominant in some moments, yet has halves like the first in Game 3 in which he took just 3 shots. LeBron cannot win a fourth ring without a dominant Davis, and AD even admitted to feeling the pressure of the playoffs beside an all-time great. He’s complained about playing the 5 all year, yet the Lakers’ best lineups, and his superior position, is in the middle. Davis needs to suck it up and bang with the big boys if he wants a ring.

3. I questioned if Donovan Mitchell had the chops to be an alpha, A1 scorer on a contender, and he proved me wrong. He’s averaging 37.6 in the series against Denver and has two 50 point games. Mitchell is showing the ability to score efficiently and involve his teammates. Utah expected to contend this year but struggled with chemistry issues, folding new players into the lineup (Mike Conley), and seemed destined for another early round exit. Mitchell is changing things in this Denver series, but will it continue? He’s picking on the poor defense of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Michael Porter Jr., dissecting the Nuggets by hunting favorable match ups. If the Clippers are next, however, how will he navigate Paul George and Kawhi Leonard? More size and defensive acumen will present problems. How Mitchell handles those challenges deeper in the playoffs will show us how many steps he’s taken.

4. And how about Mitchell’s sniping opponent, Jamal Murray, dragging the Nuggets to a Game 5 win? Denver seemed finished early in the second half, down 15, showing little fight and having zero answers on defense. Then Murray happened. 33 points in the second half, Murray’s speed got him to the rim with ease or created space for his dead eye jumper. Though flaming, he didn’t force his shot either. Late assists on 3s to Michael Porter and Nikola Jokic sealed the win. Murray is tantalizing, yet cannot find consistency. His scoring numbers in this series (36,14,12,50,42) prove as much. The Nuggets need to know what’s coming each night if they’re to make the jump to contender. Denver’s defense is awful and may prevent them from coming back in this series, but Mitchell vs. Murray is must watch.

5. The Luka Doncic show from Sunday was unprecedented, and a welcome to superstardom moment for him. Luka controls an offense unlike anyone we’ve seen. He isn’t fast, but he’s quick enough. He’s not huge, but he’s big enough. Doncic’s footwork is majestic. His fundamentals, perfect. He reads defenses, moving defenders with his eyes and slight movements and jab steps that open corner 3s, driving lanes, or whatever the hell else he wants. Dallas is a title contender for the next decade, though they still may need a piece. But Luka is the future. His control of the team at 21 years old defies logic. His injured ankle, Kristaps Porzingis’ hurt knee, and the overwhelming talent gap between them and the Clippers seem too tall a mountain to climb. Never fear though, Mavericks fans. MVP awards and championship trophies are on the horizon.

6. Kawhi Leonard is one of the greatest defenders of all time. But you’re telling me he couldn’t have fought harder through this screen at the end of Game 4? Luka is taking that shot. He isn’t passing it to Maxi Kleber. So why give in and ride Kleber into the paint? And I understand that Reggie Jackson made a 3 and an outstanding hustle play to keep the Clippers in the game, but why give Luka a chance to work a switch onto him? He should’ve been on the bench. Baffling.

Come on Kawhi, fight through that screen

7. What’s left to say, standing over the dead carcass of the 76ers’ season? Brett Brown couldn’t motivate his players and got canned on Monday. Ben Simmons won’t shoot. Joel Embiid won’t get in shape. Philly needs a reboot, and tough decisions concerning the stars are on the horizon. The new coach will sell the front office on the idea that he, and he alone, can figure out the Embiid/Simmons problem, but even if he can, Al Horford is owed 81 mil over the next 3 seasons, while Tobias Harris is guaranteed 149 million over the next 4. Neither contract is tradeable, Horford is declining and an awful fit next to the two stars, and Harris isn’t the clutch, end of game scorer with the ball in his hands the team is paying for. Even if Simmons and Embiid can co-exist, is Philly a title contender as constructed? A lot of soul searching is in store this fall in Philadelphia.

8. Boston-Toronto. The series everyone wanted and expected has arrived. The Celtics and Raptors were 1st and 3rd, respectively, in the regular season in fast break points, so look for each team to run at any opportunity. Once the defenses get set, scoring will become difficult. The Raptors were 2nd and the Celtics 4th in defensive rating, and each team’s length will cause problems for the other. So who can score in the half court? Jayson Tatum has continued his breakout into superstardom in the bubble, shooting 3s well and penetrating more often. Jaylen Brown averaged 21.5 against the Sixers and shot 6 free throws a game, a welcome bump in his aggressiveness. If Kemba Walker’s 24 per game continues against Toronto, the Raptors are toast.

9. But the Raptors, with Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Serge Ibaka, have the length and quickness to match-up with Boston’s rangy scorers. Will Toronto score on their end? They were middle of the league in half court scoring, so Boston will try to keep them from running. Is Pascal Siakam a good enough offensive player to carry the load? How will Kyle Lowry fare? It’s his team, and Lowry must drive their half-court offense. He needs to score, but also construct scoring opportunities for Siakam and open 3s for Fred VanVleet. He buried his playoff demons in an epic Finals Game 6 in Golden State last year, and that Lowry has to show up here. Without a big series from him, Boston wins.

10. Houston might be the better team, but Oklahoma City has fought harder in games 3 and 4. James Harden, a renowned playoff -what disappearer?- was fine with 14 in the second half of Game 3, but only took 8 shots, and 1 in overtime. His 13 in the second half of Game 4, also fine, came on 14 shots. The Rockets can’t afford fine from their MVP. Houston designed their offense to utilize his talents. Any drop off from him is trouble. Chris Paul is controlling games for OKC and attempting to bury some of his own playoff demons. While Paul has a litany of poor playoff performances, no one questions his heart. His team is under-manned and shooting deficient, but they play harder. Houston needs to prove they can match the Thunder’s intensity, or they won’t make it to a hyped second round series against the Lakers.

 

NBA Re-Preview

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, NBA, NBA Bubble, Zion

Can the NBA get this right? 2020 is standing on its head, desperate for attention and getting it. But can basketball steal the focus away and deliver a two-month playoff run unlike anything we’ve seen? The star power in the NBA is strong; no league markets its talent better. LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Joel Embiid, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis and the rest have an opportunity unlike any other. They will transfix eyes on Orlando, to see if they can pull off a health and safety nightmare, and to see the stars. Will LeBron lead a rickety roster to his 4th title? Can Kawhi go back-to-back? Is Giannis ready to snag ownership of the league away from his older brethren? Can James Harden and Russell Westbrook conquer their playoff demons? What will this look like without fans?


Three teams can win the title. While others will provide interest, only the Lakers, Clippers, and Bucks feel like contenders. Forget the notion of a tainted title because of the circumstances. In fact, the 2020 champ will have endured more adversity than almost any other in history. The rings won in October, after the nonsense this year has given us, will be iconic. So who will wear them?

Los Angeles Lakers


Why they’ll win the title: Not rocket science here. LeBron James and Anthony Davis. They’re the best duo in the league. James will finish second in the MVP race; Davis fifth or sixth. Davis will also make either first or second team All Defense. While Davis’ defensive numbers are good, not stellar, what he does for LeBron on that end is unquantifiable. Davis protects the rim, hedges pick and rolls, and closes on 3 ball shooters at a doctorate level. He allows James do to what he does best: roam. LeBron’s defensive numbers are the best since he left Miami. Poor defenders in Cleveland, along with his blasé regular season attitude, created a fair narrative that his skills had slipped. AD’s length covers his teammates’ rear ends and allows LeBron to use his athleticism and smarts to read opposing offenses and react. A team bereft of top line defenders, Davis almost single-handedly vaulted the Lakers to the third ranking defense in the league.


But I have buried the lead. If the Lakers win the title, it’ll come down to one play, LeBron-Davis pick and rolls. The best passer and finisher in the league, the smartest player in the league, the most battled tested player in the league, controlling the offense and dishing to the most devastating finisher in the NBA. When the games slow down in the playoffs, buckets get tough. But LeBron manipulates defenses like few players in history. He’s methodical. He’s surgical. He’ll wait an extra tick before whipping a pass to Danny Green in the corner for an open 3. He’ll push the pace off defensive rebounds if he sees an advantage. He moves his teammates around at will, searching for preferable match-ups and court spacing. James will create good shots for either himself or his teammates when possessions become essential. That ability, to score points in the tightest situations, separates champions. No player is more prepared to play in the bubble and all the challenges it will bring than LeBron James. The playoffs reveal fear every year. There is none in 23.

Look at the options off this pick and roll. Davis dunk or Green 3?

Why they’ll lose: After 1 and 2, this roster is hot garbage. Avery Bradley opted out of the bubble, and his absence hurts, especially on defense. While Danny Green is a powerful wing defender, Bradley is quicker and more capable of guarding opposing point guards. With the injury to Rajon Rondo keeping him out for most of the playoffs, Bradley gave L.A. another ball handler other than LeBron. Now who handles the rock when LBJ sits? Quinn Cook? Troy Daniels? J. R. Smith? Dion Waiters? Have fun with that ragtag mix of misfits. Alex Caruso must step up for the Lakers in the bubble. Solid all season, he and LeBron are the best 2 man combo on the team, at plus 20.9 per 100 possessions. At 18 minutes per game, he’s averaged 5 points and 1.8 assists, however. Is he ready for big minutes handling the rock for a title contender?

Is anyone on this roster? Davis has playoff experience, but none as a title favorite and LeBron sidekick. The pressure on him will be immense. Kyle Kuzma was unsteady in the regular season. Give me Danny Green in crunch time. The rest of the Dwight Howards and Jared Dudleys are all yours.

Los Angeles Clippers


Why they’ll win the title: Kawhi Leonard. He established himself as one of the five best players in the league, with an argument for the one spot, with an epic title run with the Raptors that showcased every talent he possesses. After his switch on Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Eastern Conference Finals, Giannis wilted, along with the Bucks. He carried the offensive load on a team made up of third options, averaging 30.5, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and almost 2 steals per. Now he’s head of perhaps the best talent in the league. Montrezl Harrell is the likely sixth man of the year, Lou Williams has won the award multiple times and is a walking bucket off the bench, and Patrick Beverley is the dog every team needs in the playoffs that will outwork the opposition while barking at them throughout a series. Then there’s Paul George. Injuries are an issue, but the layoff should find him healthy. An MVP candidate throughout much of last year, George only bows to his teammate Leonard as the best two-way player in the league. If the James-Davis pick and roll is the ultimate weapon, George and Leonard provide the best opportunity to neutralize it. Those match-ups in crunch time of a Western Conference Finals will be epic.

Landry Shamet provides shooting off the bench, Ivica Zubac has played sneaky well in the starting lineup, and Marcus Morris is a prototypical body to steal minutes for George and Leonard on defense against LeBron. And Morris shot 41% from 3 on the season. No roster in the league has the combination of talent and experience that the other L.A. team possesses.

Why they’ll lose: Some in-fighting occurred between the holdovers from last year’s spunky Clippers team and the recent additions. Did the layoff allow them to re-focus on what’s important? How will Paul George fare? Early in his career, his playoff battles with LeBron pushed those Heat teams to the brink. Can George sit behind Leonard, or will he disappear at crucial moments? PG13’s so-so ball handling skills rear their head at inopportune times, so he needs to knock down open jumpers and eliminate crunch time turnovers. And can they handle size? Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic, and even Steven Adams could give them fits in a 7 game series. Harrell will see 4th quarter minutes at center, yet he’s only 6’8”. Zubac has been good, but does Doc Rivers trust the unathletic big man in high-pressure situations? Will Paul George or Kawhi Leonard have to guard skilled opposing big men? An interesting sub-plot to watch as the playoffs progress.

Milwaukee Bucks

Why they’ll win the title: They’re the number 1 offense in the league. Their defensive rating per 100 possessions also leads the league by 3.3 points. Giannis is the unquestioned MVP. LeBron was excellent in leading his Laker team, but perhaps it’s Giannis’ league now. 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, in only 31 minutes per game. He dominates opponents in the paint with deft footwork and power. He glides in the open floor, the most devastating fast break in basketball. And the defense. He stretches from baseline to baseline, a rim protector, on ball stopper, and rotation expert rolled into one. Bucks GM Jon Horst stacked the roster with excellent defenders (Brook Lopez deserves an All Defense nod, and Eric Bledsoe strong consideration), but Antetokounmpo is on another level. He cares, and it shows by his hustle and desire to gut opponents. Giannis didn’t come to make friends, and a title is the only acceptable outcome for Milwaukee. If the Clippers don’t have the best roster in the league, the Bucks do. George Hill, Khris Middleton, and Kyle Korver all shoot over 40% from 3. Ersan Ilyasova and Wes Matthews are over 36%, devastating shooting to arrange around Giannis. And that number 1 defense? They do things differently that most. Milwaukee has allowed the most 3s made and taken against them in the league, yet they stifle the paint, only allowing teams to shoot 41% against them on the season. They rarely foul; teams shoot the sixth lowest amount of free throws in the league against them. They must keep LeBron and Kawhi off the line in any Finals matchup.

Why they’ll lose: Can they afford to give 3s to Toronto, Boston, or either of the L.A. teams? Mike Budenholzer has been outstanding in Milwaukee, but refuses to budge from what they do in a seven-game series. Being who you are is great, but small tweaks make the difference. The Bucks must adjust their defensive philosophy according to their opponent. If a second round match-up against the Heat, the best shooting 3 ball team in the league, occurs, Milwaukee must adapt. Miami lines up well with them, and a few games of hot outside shooting may put them on the ropes.

Will Eric Bledsoe show this postseason? Describing Bledsoe’s performance in last year’s playoffs as a train wreak would be too kind. He was unplayable against Toronto’s Lowry/VanVleet backcourt, benched in favor of George Hill. Malcolm Brogdon was Milwaukee’s best guard last postseason, but he’s now in Indiana. Bledsoe has rebounded, averaging 15 on 35% 3 shooting and 5.4 assists per game while playing defense at an All NBA level. He has to produce this year, or the Bucks won’t win the title. His defense is too important to be on the bench during crunch time if he becomes a human turnover and brick layer on offense. As he goes, the Bucks will go.

The Rest


Houston Rockets

What will James Harden look like with a four-month rest leading into the playoffs? Perennially gassed by May from the load placed on his shoulders in the regular season, is Harden a playoff choker, or just overused in the regular season? We’ll find out in the bubble. Throw in a rejuvenated Russell Westbrook, and the Rockets are the league’s biggest conundrum. A title would surprise, but any other result would not. First round loss? Sure. Western Conference Finals? Maybe. A roster built to run opponents off the floor and hoist 3’s from everywhere, they’ve once again redefined what small ball means. They start no one over 6’8”, and while Tyson Chandler (7’0”) may see sporadic minutes, look for the Rockets to run opposing bigs off the floor. While Harden and Westbrook will draw the spotlight, the key to Houston’s success will be P. J. Tucker and Robert Covington. Both need to guard above their weight class on defense and punish power forwards and centers on defense by dragging them out of the paint and knocking down 3s. If Tucker and Covington succeed, the Rockets will surprise in the West.

Houston’s starting lineup

Toronto Raptors

The defending champs have mastered carrying a chip on their shoulder. Overlooked as the champs, the fans and players in Toronto are tired of being scoffed at, and they should be. Perhaps the best fit roster in the league, the Raps have length and shooting at every position. Pascal Siakam made MVP noise over the first two months of the season before injuries slowed his ascend to superstar. He’s a perennial All-Star, however, and Kyle Lowry’s clutch Game 6 in last year’s Finals removed the playoff choker tag from his career. Lowry is battle tested and tough. The second best defense in the league, try to find a weak spot. Marc Gasol, Lowry, Siakam, Serge Ibaka, and OG Anunoby are smart, long defenders who lock up opponents. While they lack the firepower to beat Milwaukee, a second round series against Boston could be a classic.

New Orleans Pelicans

Zion Williamson, who else? While my Lonzo Ball love is well documented, and he and Zion are glorious together, Pels games are must watch because of the rookie. Now in shape, the future of the league is here. Though New Orleans’ goal will be to play their way into the 8-9 Western Conference play-in game, the groundwork for their future will begin construction in Orlando. Are Lonzo, Brandon Ingram, Derrick Favors, and Jrue Holiday the correct pieces around the phenom? Can they make a push for the Western Conference Finals as soon as next year? Williamson is that good, but are his teammates? GM David Griffin can’t afford to waste one off-season in New Orleans. Every game played by New Orleans in the bubble will be an evaluation for how high their expectations will be next year.

Boston Celtics

Jayson Tatum made the leap in February. 30 points and 8 rebounds on 49% shooting, 48% from 3, the numbers, and his on-court confidence, screamed superstar. Thrust into championship contender talk, Boston seems to be a smidge short. But what if February Tatum makes his way to Orlando? Jaylen Brown has some believing he’s the better of the two players. Kemba Walker makes big shots in big moments, and Marcus Smart wins games. Giannis is a tough match-up on a smallish Boston team, however. Their lack of size, less of an issue against Toronto, will prove costly in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Philadelphia 76ers

We should consider them with the title contenders. What happened? Philly posted the best home record in the league, yet the 20th best road mark. What does that mean in Orlando? Confused? Welcome to the 2019-2020 76ers. Joel Embiid is engaged, sometimes. What kind of shape will he be in? He and Ben Simmons are a janky fit. Brett Brown moved Shake Milton into the starting lineup during bubble scrimmages to allow Simmons to play more power forward. But is taking the ball out of his hands, and deadening his passing abilities, the right move? And why has Al Horford been such a poor fit? His offense and shooting has suffered with less space provided to him by his Philly teammates, and another year on his body has made him 5% less effective on defense. Listen, the Sixers have the talent to make a Finals push. But the questions only continued to pile up throughout the season. How many are too many?

It feels like the Lakers. The Bron-Davis duo is too good on both ends of the floor, and James has stared down more adversity in his career than perhaps any player in history. He was built for this moment, and at 35 his title chances are dwindling. The Bucks and Clippers are deeper, and probably better teams. But when buckets in the closing minutes get tough, I know I can rely on that James-Davis pick and roll. One of the greatest to ever do it gets his fourth ring.

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

 

Is Kevin Porter the Cavs’ Future?

Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News, Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Kevin Porter Jr., LeBron James

As the Cleveland Cavaliers’ season trudges along, Kevin Porter Jr. is beginning to look like the future of the organization. A top pick in the 2020 draft could change that, but of the guys on the roster, Porter has the highest ceiling and best chance at stardom. He can shoot. He’s become more decisive on his drives to the bucket. His jerky style confuses defenses and spectators. It’s hard to discern if he’s unsure of himself or probing the defense, looking for a crack to exploit (a little of both). His defense has improved. With his length and quickness he can be a good defender. His instincts are good, averaging a steal per game. Only 20, will Porter mature into a player the franchise can build around?

Darius Garland is improving in fits and starts. His trigger finger is getting quicker; he’s shooting 2 more threes a game over the last 10 contests. The questions entering the year centered on Collin Sexton and Garland and how they would play off each other. Now it seems more important to play Garland and Porter together. While it’s still early, Sexton’s future role is scorer off the bench, a la Jordan Clarkson or Lou Williams. Sexton is adept at what he does, getting downhill with the ball in his hands, attacking the basket. His defense and 3 point shooting need to improve. He doesn’t see the floor or his teammates well. Sexton can still get better, but to expect more from him is a stretch.

John Beilein began playing Garland and Porter minutes together this week. While Garland starts, he’s being replaced five minutes in with Matthew Dellavedova. He’s re-entering with the second unit, and that lineup has flourished. Garland, Clarkson, Porter, Larry Nance, and John Henson closed a 9 point deficit in Milwaukee Saturday night to one in 6 minutes together before the starters returned and the lead ballooned. It’s a small sample size, just 42 minutes together, but the group is plus 8.8 per 100 possessions. Henson is far and away the team’s best defender; his length adds a dimension the team lacks. Nance is a Swiss army knife, Clarkson is a scorer. Watch this lineup over the next few weeks.

Porter’s overall numbers are poor. His shooting percentages and defensive on/offs show a horrid NBA player. The eyes are the key metric with him, however. He looked lost the first month and a half of the season, but is improving. The constant pump fakes behind the 3 point line are becoming catch and shoots. He’s attacking the rim off the dribble instead of bouncing the ball with no purpose. He recorded 3 steals in his first nine games, total. He’s averaging 1.3 per game since. Porter is immature and played little college ball. His game fits in the NBA, however. If John Beilein can mold Porter Jr. into an All-Star level player, the franchise will consider his work a success.

Porter was indecisive here early in the year. Now it’s a catch and shoot

Cavs Quick Hits

Cedi Osman and Tristan Thompson dribble too much. Their handles are subpar; in the NBA that leads to turnovers. Both are fine when shooting off cuts or post ups. Osman is a better 3 ball shooter off catch and shoots. When they put the ball on the floor, they become turnover machines. Neither’s handles are even average, and on a better team they wouldn’t have the opportunity to dribble. Beilein needs to get the ball out of their hands.

Collin Sexton shot 40% from 3 last year, a shock to most who thought he lacked a jumper. He’s regressed this year, however, shooting only 29% from behind the line. Which shooter is the real Sexton? If he is to be a useful NBA player, it can’t be this year’s version. His quickness level is elite; he’s one of, if not the fastest, players in the league. His transition game devastates opponents, but he can struggle in the half court. Defenses are keeping him out of the lane by giving him the 3, hurting the team’s spacing. If he can’t keep defenses honest by canning triples, he’ll continue to struggle and hurt the offense.

What’s What Around the League

1.I hate 2 for 1s. There, I said it. While the math is the math, and 2 possessions at the end of a quarter should be advantageous, the execution is lacking. The result is two bad shots; a rushed heave or out-of-control drive to the rim followed by the same after getting the ball back from your opponent, who ran their normal offense and got a quality shot. Coaches seem to feel the same way. While I have no numbers to back it up, the 2 for 1s seem down this year. Again, no numbers, but running offense and getting one quality shot instead of forcing two for the sake of getting the ball on the rim leads to more points. Quantity isn’t better than quality.

2. Ja is special.

3. Devonte’ Graham is a revelation. A breakout star for a feisty Charlotte team, one many expected to be the worst in the league, Graham is the Hornet offense. Shifty and quick, with a split second release, Graham’s game is Iversony, a smallish bulldog who can score at will. His 40 in Brooklyn, capped off by a dagger 3, highlighted his importance in Charlotte. With his team struggling to find offense, Graham rained 3’s, creating space with speed and cagey dribbling. After bouncing between the G-League and the big team last year, Graham no longer spends time in Greensboro, and, while he isn’t there yet, deserves to be in the All-Star conversation. 19.9 points and 7.6 assists on 42% from 3 are take notice numbers, but can he sustain them? On a team with few offensive weapons, Graham’s next challenge will be to prove he isn’t a flash in the pan.

4. Though Ja Morant receives high praise in Memphis, the Grizzlies other rookie can turn heads too. Brandon Clarke is a springy big. His athleticism draws the eye, though the rest of his game demands attention. His post game is strong; good footwork and a quick first step are allowing him to shoot a tick below 70% three feet from the rim and 66% within 10 feet. Though he only takes 1 per game, he’s canning 50% of his threes, showing potential behind the arc. Grizzly fans must hardly be able to contain their excitement. Morant is a superstar in the making. Jaren Jackson Jr. dropped 43 against Milwaukee last week, and Clarke seems a perfect fit next to them. Memphis is a juggernaut in waiting.

5. How good can this Laker team be? The ancillary parts are what they are, but a locked in LeBron James and Anthony Davis are unlike any duo the league has seen. James has coasted since the title in ‘16, turning up only in the playoffs, a right he’s earned. Whether because of Davis’ arrival or the off-season passing of the best player torch in the media to Kawhi Leonard, scorched earth LeBron has returned. His defense, gone since his Miami days, is back, and he’s leading the league in assists for the first time in his career. Davis provides him with the most devastating weapon he’s ever possessed. His athleticism and defense provide cover for LeBron to do what he does best. He’s free to roam on defense, hunting steals and blocks. No longer the singular focus of defenses, LeBron has room to probe and survey on offense, a death sentence for the opposition.

6. James’ vision and passing acumen improve his teammates; they furnish Davis with a path to the MVP. LeBron moves defenses at will, giving AD space he never knew existed for lobs, one-on-one post ups, and open 3’s, which he’s canning at a career best 34%. The Lakers are unguardable, regardless of the 3 other players sharing the floor with these two. We know Kawhi will turn it up for the playoffs. James Harden has ghosts he needs to abolish, and Luka Doncic wants a seat at the table. LeBron and AD are just different, however. The title runs through them.

7. The Luka Doncic injury, he sprained his right ankle Saturday night, will give us more info on the Mavericks’ roster. Full of guys playing above their heads, can they continue winning, or is this a Doncic driven improvement? Kristaps Porzingis needs to become more involved, and Tim Hardaway Jr will have to carry more of the offense. A road win in Milwaukee Monday night suggests Dallas’ bench mob is for real. Check in on the Mavs in a few weeks.

8. The 76ers desperately need a point guard who can handle the rock and shoot the three at the end of games. Would the Bulls be interested in trading them Tomas Satoransky? He’s an excellent point guard on a good contract. The Bulls signed him to as a free agent this off-season, but have a promising young point guard in Coby White and adequate backups in Kris Dunn and Ryan Arcidiacono. There are protections involved, but the Sixers have their 2021 and 2022 first round picks available. With a chance to win the title, would Elton Brand consider a 37% 3 point shooter who’s averaging over 5 assists per game worth one of those 1sts? He’d take pressure off Ben Simmons.

9. Markelle Fultz is slick. There’s a good player here. Can the Magic unlock him?

10. We know as good as Kawhi Leonard is now, he’ll jump another level in the playoffs. The Clippers’ title chances, therefore, rest on Paul George. The Lakers’ duo looks unstoppable. For the Clips to beat their cross-hallway rival, George will be key. He went toe-to-toe with LeBron years ago during those Heat-Pacers series, but slumped in May with the Thunder. Injuries were a cause, as was Russell Westbrook. The Clippers will need either George or Leonard guarding LeBron at all times, a luxury for sure, but also a necessity, to beat the Lakers. If James controls playoff games in his normal fashion, the purple and gold LA squad are the champs. The Clippers All-Pro defenders must make him work for positioning on the floor. They will have to make it difficult for him to get the ball. With no answer on the roster for Anthony Davis, slowing 23 is their only hope.

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

 

Cleveland Cavaliers and Black Ice

Cleveland Cavaliers, Darius Garland, LeBron James, NBA, Tristan Thompson

A tough week for the Cleveland Cavaliers ended on Saturday night with a fun win over a toiling Portland team. Whipped in New York, Miami, and Dallas, the team needed a victory for their psyche. The schedule is brutal for a struggling team. The games keep coming and the losses can mount. Self doubt is a sickness that spreads when getting throttled by 40.

For the Cavs to win, they have to outwork their opponents. They lack in talent in almost every matchup; if the energy level is low, they will get blown out. The wins are important to sustain belief. Losing causes doubt. Doubt creates lethargy. Two game losing streaks turn into 10 game streaks in a hurry. Cleveland needs wins to prove what they’re doing can work. The coaching staff needs stuff to point to in film sessions that work. If the young guys lose confidence, they may never regain it. This is John Beilein’s toughest assignment. How do you keep spirits up when you’re losing by double digits on the regular?

To come home after the beat downs on the road and post a win, even against a struggling Blazers unit, is encouraging. Watching the beatings is frustrating, but remember where the Cavs are in the rebuild. Three 20-year-olds are playing significant minutes. A fourth (Dylan Windler) will be once he’s healthy. The improvements made by Darius Garland and Kevin Porter Jr. occur in fits and starts. It is tough, but necessary. No perennial MVP candidate is coming back in free agency. An All-Star duo will not team up in Cleveland. Those players will come through drafts and development.

Oklahoma City is the model. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden were drafted in consecutive years at 2, 4, and 3 overall. They won 20 and 23 games in Durant’s and Westbrook’s rookie years before surging to 50 in Durant’s third year. It doesn’t happen overnight, even for the greats.

When the team is struggling, Tristan Thompson tries to put the offense on his shoulders. This isn’t ideal. Too many possessions end with Thompson dribbling 6,8, even 10 times, probing his way into the paint before turning it over or unleashing an errand shot. Thompson has been fantastic this year. His leadership and effort are a godsend for this young squad, but there’s a point of diminishing returns when he has the ball in his hands on offense. Any possession in which he’s dribbling is asking for trouble.

Thompson is vital to the success of the offense, but use him without the ball in his hands. Pick and rolls with Collin Sexton, Garland, and Jordan Clarkson play to his strengths. Those three are quick with the ball and have shown a propensity to get to the rim. TT provides an outlet if the lane is closed. Thompson has always been a fantastic rim runner, and his improved hooks with either hand give him another weapon to finish in the paint off passes from the guards. Beilein seems to favor dribble handoffs involving a big and a guard versus the traditional pick and roll. These are plays are fine. They help the guards get to the basket, but also make it harder for the big to cut because of the way the defense guards the roll man. Run the hand offs with Kevin Love. He can pop off the pick to the three point line. Give the traditional pick and rolls to Thompson, who’s more dynamic going toward the rim.

Pick and roll between Thompson and Sexton gets Sexton to the rim

While Beilein harps on ball movement and the point guard has to set that example, Darius Garland should take a few games and fire at will from all over the court. He’s still tentative, hoping to satisfy his coaches and teammates instead of playing to his strengths. It’s important for his future development that he sees the floor and gets his teammates involved, but for his confidence today he needs to be more selfish. His aggression peaked in garbage time against Dallas when he posted a career high and lead the team in scoring with 23. Garland’s shooting led the Cavs to take him 5th overall in the draft, and it’ll be the reason he succeeds or fails in the league. Allow him to gain some confidence from his shot. Once he sees his scoring numbers increase, the playmaking will open up.

What’s What Around the League

1. De’Andre Hunter is a perfect compliment to Trae Young in Atlanta. The rookie has had a big week, posting a 27 and 11 against Milwaukee followed by an 18 point performance in Detroit. He’s found his footing in the league, reaching double figures in scoring in his last seven games, with a six steal game thrown in. Most expected Hunter to be a defensive force, and while he’s struggled on that end, his offensive game has Hawks’ fans salivating. The team’s offensive rating is 12.4 points better when he’s on the floor; he’s doing everything on that end. Hunter attacks the basket, a good dribbler who sees the defense well and attacks when a crack in the defense forms for him to exploit. He’s strong when he gets to the rim, able to finish over shot blockers. He shoots 35% from 3 and can post up when smaller defenders switch onto him. With Hunter and Young in the fold, Atlanta is a future contender.

2. When Ben Simmons gets the ball in the paint, he has to shoot. For Philadelphia to be the team it wants to be, Simmons needs more aggression. Can Joel Embiid lend him some attitude?

3. Watching Luka Doncic control every aspect of each game is enthralling. Is it possible that he’s the best player in the league already? Maybe 3-4 guys are better passers, though even that seems high. He shoots 35% from three, 72% in the restricted area, and 75% from 16 to 24 feet (NBA.com). The league is witnessing the blooming of a superstar. His Mavericks are 5th in the Western Conference. He’s guiding an OK roster and has put them in contention to make noise in the playoffs as a second year 20-year-old. If you were drafting players for the next ten years, Luka is the easy 1st pick.

So quick…..and that court vision

4. Pat Connaughton and Donte DiVincenzo provided a glimpse of what’s needed from them if the Bucks hope to make the NBA Finals Thursday against the Blazers. By posting a combined 34 points, the duo provided spacing for Giannis to attack the basket while giving him a release when the defense collapsed. With Eric Bledsoe’s inconsistency and a lack of reliable playmaking from anyone else on the roster, Milwaukee has to find role players Mike Budenholzer can count on. Giannis is life changing. The contributions on the fringes will decide Milwaukee’s fate in May and June.

5. The Timberwolves are a difficult team to figure. Karl Anthony-Towns is an offensive blowtorch, scorching teams like no 7 footer in the league’s history. Averaging 26, 12, and 3 assists, Towns is shooting 45% from 3 on nine attempts a game. Just incomprehensible. His shooting chart is a stat geek’s wet dream; nearly all his shots are 3’s or within 5 feet of the basket. Now take a gander at Andrew Wiggins’ numbers. He’s averaging career highs in points, rebounds, and assists while also shooting the ball better than ever.

And the defense is okay; they’re 15th in the league in defensive rating. So why aren’t the T-Wolves better than .500? It’s too difficult running a team through the center. While Towns is unlike anything the NBA has seen, trying to develop flow through a big man is clunky. Wiggins has improved, but he’s not the guy you want at the end of games deciding wins and losses. Things seem to gum up on them in the fourth quarter. The potential for a good team is there. Will they put it together?

6. The 76ers rank 8th in the league in defensive rating, but when they turn the screws they become suffocating. In Jimmy Butler’s return Saturday night, a playoff-like atmosphere, Philly’s intensity on that end stymied the Heat. Once the playoffs roll around, will anyone be able to score with any consistency against Philadelphia? The 76ers continue to be the most fascinating story in the NBA.

7. A team known for outplaying expectations, the Blazers have reversed course this year. After making the Western Conference Finals last year, they’ve floundered in the first month of this season. Losing a bench core of Maurice Harkless, Meyers Leonard, Evan Turner, along with the underrated Al-Farouq Aminu, has hurt more than expected. Damian Lillard and C. J. McCollum are still there, however, but a 5-12 start to the season has the Blazers in a hole they may not get out of. Lillard looked disinterested in Cleveland Saturday night and, while he was returning from injury, didn’t play with the passion the team needs from him to win games. Carmelo Anthony isn’t enough to shake Portland out of the early season doldrums.

8. These neon green Timberwolves jerseys burn the retinas.

9. It’s an amazing thing when LeBron James decides he wants to play defense. The Lakers are the best team in the league because of their defense and the effort exerted by James. After the title in Cleveland, he quit playing on that end of the court and his teammates followed suit. LeBron is a force of nature. If he hustles, his teams hustle. If he loafs, his teammates loaf. No one doubted his greatness, even in his 17th season. His regular season effort level was the question. This LeBron makes the Lakers the favorites and gives him one more shot at another MVP. Will he push for 82 games?

LeBron even got the refs convinced

10. Devin Booker is a “go win the game” scorer. Stuck in the mediocrity of Phoenix, the losses have mounted and questions surrounded whether Booker was a good player or just a stat sheet filler on a garbage team. With the Suns’ rise in the Western Conference, he’s proving himself All-Star worthy. Booker is one of the best pure scorers in the game and is doing it efficiently, shooting 52/45/95. When the game is on the line, he can create his own shot. At 6’5”, he has the size to shoot over defenders and the quickness to get to the rim. Despite their hot start, a playoff berth still seems unlikely. If they can sneak in, however, expect Booker to have a Kobe moment or two.

 

Western Conference Preview

Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Love, LeBron James, NBA, Zion

The NBA is back. Since Kevin Durant joined Golden State in the summer of 2016, the champion was all but decided before the season started. Injuries and a historic playoff run by Kawhi Leonard allowed Toronto to topple the Warriors in the Finals last June. Then all hell broke loose.

A free agent frenzy unlike anything professional sports has ever witnessed, this season is as open as any in the league’s history. Ten teams lay claim to legitimate title aspirations. Can LeBron and Anthony Davis join forces to win the King another title and restore the mystique of the Lakers franchise? Will Kawhi become the league’s unquestioned best player with another title in a third city? How will Giannis Antetokounmpo respond to his MVP season and disappointing playoff exit?


The following are my wild guesses as to the order of finish and records of the Western Conference teams. I’ll do the Eastern Conference on Monday. My extended Cleveland Cavaliers preview is here.

1. Denver Nuggets 58-24
By finishing second in the Western Conference a year ago, the Nuggets young core established themselves as a contender. Nikola Jokic is an MVP candidate. A wizard with the ball in his hands, he’s a 7 footer unlike anything the league has seen. Jamal Murray took a leap in his development in the playoffs, finding a consistency as a leader that many believed he lacked. By trading a 1st round pick for Jerami Grant, they acquired a versatile 3 and D threat at a position of weakness. The buzz surrounding Michael Porter Jr. this off season has built to a steady roar. If he’s capable of contributing, the Nuggets rise from an interesting playoff team into a title contender. The roster continuity of the 2nd seed in last year’s playoffs should allow the Nuggets to stack wins while their rivals in the conference fight early season growing pains. Tough to see them winning the title, but it won’t be a shock if they’re the 1 seed come April.

Porter Jr. Could make Denver a title contender

2. Los Angeles Clippers 55-27
The coup pulled by the Clippers in July, trading a nest egg of draft picks and up and comer Shai Gilgeous-Alexander for Paul George and signing Kawhi Leonard to a free agent contract, netted them the best roster in the NBA and the favorites label for the title. Leonard established himself as a top three player in the league, willing the Raptors to the title, manhandling opponents on both sides of the ball. George is a rung below his new teammate on the NBA hierarchy, a consensus top three MVP candidate until a shoulder injury late in the year stymied his campaign. With Leonard, George, and Patrick Beverley, L.A.’s defense will choke opposing offenses in crunch time. While George is out to begin the season, rehabbing from shoulder surgery, and Kawhi again scheduled to be load managed throughout the year, the win total in the regular season may suffer. The title, however, goes through the L.A. team you don’t hear about.

3. Los Angeles Lakers 51-31
The city’s other title contending team has again built a hodge podge roster around LeBron James. This year differs from last, however, because of Anthony Davis. The most skilled big man in the NBA fits perfectly with LeBron, giving the Lakers two of the top six players in the league. This L.A. team’s title chances are murkier, however. James will turn 35 this season and has shown no desire to play defense since his Cavs title in 2016. Will missing the playoffs last year and the Davis addition rejuvenate LeBron? The roster surrounding the two superstars is suspect; asking for contributions from guys like Jared Dudley and Dwight Howard is tough. Kyle Kuzma must improve while learning to play alongside Davis, and someone from the group of Quinn Cook, Avery Bradley, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope must play with more consistency than they’ve shown in their careers. Danny Green should be helpful when the playoffs roll around. For the Lakers to max out this season, Anthony Davis needs to be an MVP candidate and LeBron must dial in for the regular season. A title is possible, but things must fall precisely.

4. Houston Rockets 50-32
The most bizarre, yet exciting, transaction of the off-season was the trade of Russell Westbrook to the Rockets for Chris Paul. A marriage of the two most ball dominant players in the league will be fascinating. Russ must learn to do something positive on offense when James Harden has the ball for this experiment to work. The rest of the roster is untouched, though adding Thabo Sefolosha could give the team a defensive lift late in games. Expect plenty of wins in the regular season, but can Harden and Westbrook, who have struggled to advance in the playoffs, come together when the stakes are highest? I have my doubts.

5. Golden State Warriors 48-34
With the departure of Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson’s injury, Steph Curry will be a show unto himself this year. He may lead the league in scoring and should be an MVP finalist. The Warriors roster is thin, however, after Curry, Draymond Green, and last year’s breakout All-Star D’Angelo Russell. a bench unit of Glenn Robinson III, Alec Burks, and Alfonzo McKinnie will cause this team to get blitzed in non-Curry minutes. If Klay Thompson can return soon enough, say late February, to round himself into playoff form, they will be a tough out. They are champions and proved as much by pushing the Raptors to 6 games in the Finals despite the plethora of injuries they sustained. Who wants to face Steph, Draymond, and Klay in a seven games series, regardless of their teammates?

For old times’ sake

6. Utah Jazz 47-35
A underrated off-season netted the Jazz the perfect running mate to Donovan Mitchell. Mike Conley is a veteran who can run an offense, play without the ball, shoot threes, and hound point guards on defense. A team that has relied too heavily on Mitchell to score in crunch time now has another option in the fourth quarter, sacrificing nothing on the defensive end. If that wasn’t enough juice for the offense, Bojan Bogdanovic, another sly addition, gives them a third ball handler used to stepping up during tense moments. His exploits with an under-manned Pacer team in the first round of the playoffs last year against the Celtics proved as much. With Rudy Gobert, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, manning the middle, the Jazz may be more formidable on that end of the court than the Clippers. Another team with title aspirations, if they can add another shooter at the trade deadline, the Jazz will have as legitimate a shot as anyone.

7. Portland Trail Blazers 46-36
We mention the Blazers each year as a team that could miss the playoffs. They then surprise, ending the season with home court in the first round. The culture Terry Stotts and Damian Lillard have built in Portland is impressive, and a Western Conference Finals appearance last year attests to that. Lillard is underrated, a top fifteen player in the league and one of its best leaders. He and C. J. McCollum form the best backcourt in the league, non Steph and Klay division. This year’s iteration of the Blazers is heavy on guards and centers; a big with range could improve their ceiling. Watch them as a trade destination for Kevin Love.
Seven could prove too low for them. If Jusuf Nurkic can return around the All-Star break recovered from his devastating leg injury, Portland will prove pessimists wrong again.

8. Sacramento Kings 43-39
Perhaps the most exciting team in the league last year, the Kings will again be a League Pass darling. Their up tempo playing style and dynamic young back court are impossible to turn away from. De’Aaron Fox could be the best point guard in the league in five years, and Buddy Hield is an electric shooter and scorer. Can they make the leap from spunky upstart to playoff contender? Marvin Bagley holds the team’s ceiling in his hands. If he becomes a 20-10 force, the Kings will ditch their 13 season absence from the playoffs and be a pesky out for one of the league’s contenders.

9. San Antonio Spurs 41-41
Predicting the Spurs to miss the playoffs is a fool’s errand. It’s been twenty-two years since the Spurs weren’t playing in May, and it’s hard to imagine Gregg Popovich, one of the three greatest coaches of all-time, not on the bench come playoff time. LaMarcus Aldridge continues as a mid-range wizard, one of the best in the game at scoring in spots the league has shied away from. The problem for them is their other semi-star, DeMar DeRozan, thrives in the same areas. For the Spurs to succeed, their young back court of Dejounte Murray and Derrick White must flash. Murray received breakout player hype last year before tearing an ACL and missing the year. White made strides last year, topped by his 36 point effort in Game 3 of their first round series against the Nuggets. Can the duo, under Pop’s guidance, extend the Spurs ridiculous playoff streak?

10. New Orleans Pelicans 38-44
By maximizing the return the team received for Anthony Davis, David Griffin turned New Orleans into one of the most envied situations in the league. Winning the Zion Williamson lottery didn’t hurt, either. Zion is the most anticipated rookie since Davis, catapulting the Pelicans to must watch status along with the L.A. teams. Alvin Gentry’s frantic playing style will benefit both Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram. While LeBron elevates many he plays with, some buckle under the scrutiny he brings (Rodney Hood). If Ingram can make the leap from good to great scorer, think 25 a game, he could win the Most Improved Player award. The trade from Los Angeles should benefit Ball as well, calming the noise and allowing him to develop. He and J. J. Redick are a perfect pair. Perhaps the most underrated point guard in the league, though, is Jrue Holiday. An elite defender, Holiday is also a dynamic scorer and distributer. If Zion is as good early as many think he will be, the Pelicans may avoid the growing pains young teams fight.

Is Zion an All-Star already?

11. Dallas Mavericks 36-46
Luka Doncic will be a perennial MVP candidate soon. His playmaking is elite; he can score at all levels. Joining with Kristaps Porzingis is a dream; they are the perfect complement to each other’s games. If Porzingis can return healthy and stay that way, the combo can be one of the best twosomes in the game. At 7’3”, Porzingis is a dominant paint defender and a knockdown three ball shooter. His ceiling is limitless, hampered only by his injuries. The roster surrounding them, however, is garbage. Tim Hardaway Jr., J.J. Barea, and Dwight Powell don’t inspire hope in a stacked conference. Dallas will be an exciting watch; just don’t expect them to win enough to crack the top eight.

12. Oklahoma City Thunder 33-49
Will Chris Paul remain here the entire season? An obvious trade candidate, his absurd contract, due 38, 41, and 44 million the next three years, scares away trade partners. Danilo Gallinari is a useful player, plagued by the injury bug however, as are Steven Adams and Dennis Schröder, though all are on disgusting contracts too. While they may surprise and win enough games to remain on the periphery of the playoff race, the Thunder dove headfirst into a rebuild this off-season, receiving a massive haul of first round picks for Russell Westbrook and Paul George. Too many to list here, the pick cache acquired by the Thunder will accelerate the rebuild whether they use the picks or package them in trades. Westbrook will always be an icon in Oklahoma, the star who wanted to stay after the other bolted. It was time for a trade, however, and each side will benefit in the long run.

13. Minnesota Timberwolves 27-55
A team that should be entering prime contention years, the young core in Minnesota hasn’t matured. Andrew Wiggins has underwhelmed, an inefficient scorer who can’t dribble and never developed into the defender most thought he was destined to be when drafted. Now being paid max money through 2023, Wiggins’ combination of contract and skill set is as undesirable as there is in the league. Karl Anthony-Towns used to be mentioned in the same breath as Joel Embiid, yet despite his dynamic offensive game, Towns hasn’t shown the propensity to play defense or lead an NBA franchise. They need an attitude adjustment in Minnesota before they can be considered playoff worthy again. The Wolves front office is hoping that rookie Jarrett Culver can become the player Wiggins has refused to, an all around scorer who defends.

7 footers don’t do this. Why aren’t the Wolves better?

14. Phoenix Suns 24-58
By acquiring the point guard they have been desperate for since ridding themselves of Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas, the Suns are hoping Ricky Rubio will stabilize their young roster. Established as a potent scorer, Devin Booker must now learn to choose his spots and learn to play without the ball, as Rubio will now initiate the Phoenix offense. An athletic freak, DeAndre Ayton needs to improve defensively in his second year, becoming the disrupter in the paint he seemed to be coming out of college. Will the Suns be able to run offense through him in the post? Ayton will have to improve on that side of the ball as well, though Rubio’s brilliant passing acumen will get him easy buckets. The Suns off-season was sporadic, trading a 1st round pick for Aron Baynes and Ty Jerome for reasons unknown and reaching for Cameron Johnson in the draft. The front office seems to be flailing. Their only shot at relevancy is Booker and Ayton becoming All-Stars, a tough ask.

15. Memphis Grizzlies 18-64
With the trades of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, the Grizzlies embraced their reality. The Grit and Grind days of Memphis basketball are over. The beginnings of the rebuild have been a success, with Jaren Jackson Jr. showing flashes in his rookie year before going down with injury. He shot the three well at 36%, and with his length and athleticism is poised to take a leap in his second year. The key to the Memphis rebuild will be this year’s second pick in the draft, Ja Morant. An outstanding playmaker, his quickness and off the dribble shooting ability will put an extraordinary amount of pressure on opposing defenses. Add in the athleticism of their second first-round pick, Brandon Clarke, and the Grizzlies are ditching their old plodding ways for a faster paced style of play. They should be a fun watch. While they will struggle this year, allowing the youngsters to develop and procuring another high draft pick will pay dividends.

Devastatingly quick and athletic, Ja makes the Grizzlies watchable