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

Andre Drummond? Sure

Andre Drummond, Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News

Andre Drummond will not change the fortunes of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Should they have made the deal? Absolutely. Drummond is a two time former All-Star, the league leader in rebounding, and an upgrade at the center position. The second-round pick used to acquire him will fall at the end of the 2023 draft. The money the Cavs will pay him this year and next, if he picks up his $28 million dollar option (almost a guarantee), is of no use to the organization this summer. Drummond’s contract will be of the expiring variety in 2021 and will be an asset at next year’s deadline to swap short term money for longer contracts if cap strapped teams are looking to clean their books ahead of summer 2021 and a stout free agent class. A year and a half look at one of the top five centers in the game is worth the price Koby Altman paid for an organization in the early stages of a deep rebuild. Still, don’t expect Drummond to turn this ship around.

The Cavs’ biggest weaknesses are youth, transition defense, half-court defense, rim protection, ball movement, and turnovers. Drummond has been in the league eight years and may provide strong leadership to the young guys, but he helps little in the other deficient categories. While he averages 1.7 blocks per game, Drummond allows opponents to shoot 65% against him in the restricted area (NBA.com), ranking him in the bottom half of the league. His overall defensive rating is 110.9, worst of his career. He does, however, rank third in the league in steals (2 per game). While his size is an asset, he isn’t a stout defender and won’t improve the Cavs on that end of the floor.

On offense, Drummond leads the league in offensive rebounding. He positions himself well and can use his size and athletic ability to clean up after his teammates. The Cavs now have the 1st and 3rd ranked offensive rebounders in the league (Tristan Thompson). He’s a good pick and roll screener (14th in screen assists, 17th in screen assist points) and will clear space for Sexton and Garland in the half court. He’s improved his passing, and he and Love can have success off each other in high-low actions. After that, it gets murky. He shoots less that 40% outside 3 feet, ranks 466th in the league with a 15.7% turnover percentage, and shoots 58% from the line.

This is the stuff Drummond will do for the offense. Can the guards can get him the ball?

Drummond will have some gaudy stat lines; expect a few 20/20 games. But will his skill set produce victories? From Detroit’s perspective, he wasn’t leading their team to wins and makes a pile of cash. They thought it best to cut bait now for nothing in fear of him picking up his $28 million player option next season. They preferred cap space over Drummond.

Is he an upgrade over Tristan Thompson? This trade signals the franchise’s desire, or Thompson’s, to separate after the season. They pay Drummond 10 million more per, but their skill sets are the same. Thompson has been a hard worker throughout his career, stepping into a leadership role after the departure of LeBron James. Will Drummond do the same?

The tough reality for NBA old schoolers to accept is that one-dimensional centers in an era of pace and space are obsolete. The Cavs played Drummond off the floor in 2016 during their first round match-up in the playoffs. Drummond couldn’t guard anyone in the James/Irving/Love/Smith/Jefferson closing lineup and wasn’t good enough offensively to justify court time down in fourth quarters. With so many teams forsaking offensive rebounding for transition defense, they procure rebounds in other ways, without a behemoth inside. Still, with Drummond’s obvious flaws, it was a price worth paying for Cleveland. Maybe Drummond can add to his game and become a winning player. Maybe his leadership skills will develop and he’ll be a positive influence on the young guards. Maybe he’ll develop a friendship with Kevin Love and settle Love’s frequent outbursts. Doubtful, but in the position the franchise is in, this was a chance worth taking. (Just don’t sign him to a multi-year extension. Yikes.)

What’s What Around the League

1.The sight of Houston’s small ball lineup on the floor shocks the system. With no one on the roster over 6’7” slated to get meaningful minutes, this experiment, executed by Daryl Morey, was the next logical step in the Rockets’ push to the edges of analytics. Will it work? Clint Capela didn’t make them a Finals contender; this risk is more a Hail Mary than another significant shift in the way teams play the game. They will get destroyed on defense, the size mismatches they’ll face in the Western Conference are significant. The Lakers, Nuggets, and Jazz will feast in the paint, wearing out the likes of P. J. Tucker, Thabo Sefolosha, and Robert Covington over a 7 game series. But wow, do they get the looks on offense. Surrounded by mismatches at every position, Houston gets open corner 3s and layups off isolations with ease. The spacing is ridiculous, and James Harden and Russell Westbrook are the perfect duo to take advantage. Listen, the Rockets aren’t making the Western Conference Finals, and were never going to. But their quirky new take on team building is something to gawk at.

2. My do the Andrew Wiggins takes change when a respected NBA franchise trades for him. The shock of the Warriors trading for an inefficient scorer and subpar defender still hasn’t worn off. Since Bob Myers has gained clout around the league for building champions, however, he receives the benefit of the doubt. This is the best he could have gotten out of D’Angelo Russell? The positional fit is better, but Russell is a more talented basketball player. Russell isn’t perfect, but has more worth around the league than Wiggins. Why not keep Russell until next season’s trade deadline, testing his fit next to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson after they get healthy? Minnesota has been salivating over Russell since the summer; this trade wasn’t going anywhere. Hell, the T-Wolves would’ve gotten more desperate to make this move as the losses mounted and Karl-Anthony Towns’ frustrations grew. Is it possible Wiggins blooms under a competent NBA franchise? Sure, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

3. There is no better organization at finding and developing talent in the league than the Toronto Raptors, and it isn’t close. Winners of 15 straight, the Raps continue to plug 2nd round picks and undrafted players into the lineup, turning them into contributors.
Pascal Siakam– 27th overall pick
Norman Powell– late 2nd rounder
Fred VanVleet– undrafted
Terence Davis– undrafted
Chris Boucher– undrafted
All key cogs in Toronto’s excellent season; all virtual afterthoughts on draft day. With strong veteran leadership and championship pedigree, the Raptors have has good a chance as anyone in the East to upset Milwaukee. Siakam can bother Giannis defensively and no one on the roster fears the Bucks. Masai Ujiri has built a masterpiece in Toronto.

4. Though a huge disappointment in his career, seeing the Hornets buyout Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was another lesson in the direction the league has taken. 15-20 years ago, a perimeter defender of Kidd-Gilchrist’s ilk was still useful; Bruce Bowen and Tony Allen had successful careers in the role. There just isn’t a spot on the floor for non-shooting wings anymore, regardless of how well they lock up their man on the other end. The spacing issues they create shrink the floor; throw in a poor shooting big man and your offense is toast. The speed and pace of the league is fun, though the amount of 3s being taken is reaching a tipping point. Here’s hoping lock down perimeter defenders don’t go the way of the center position.

5. Gordon Hayward seemed to be returning to All-Star form before an injury early in the season cost him a month. Though still playing well, his scoring, rebounding, and shooting numbers are all down since his return. The Celtics are in the mix for the 2 seed in the East along with Toronto, Miami, Philadelphia, and Indiana, but seem to lack that something needed to go toe-to-toe with Milwaukee in the playoffs. Kemba Walker has established himself as the leader, and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were both All-Star worthy after subpar years alongside Kyrie Irving last year. Still, Boston needs Hayward. His shooting and size on defense will be key in the playoffs; he must help Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter rebound against bigger squads. The Celtics are talented, and Kemba knows how to hit big shots in pressure moments. Still, they’ll need peak Gordon Hayward to advance.

6. Marcus Smart’s flopping will get him injured.

7. Memphis didn’t waste any time cutting Dion Waiters after acquiring him from Miami, and who could blame them? Waiters’ act would be toxic in that young locker room. Desperation in L.A. has earned him a workout with the Lakers, however. With zero path to improvement because of the assets given to trade for Anthony Davis, the buyout market is the only way for the Lakers to add talent. Still, Dion Waiters? No one loves the roller coaster ride Waiters provides more than I, and LeBron has a way of integrating troubled players into his orbit, but he failed with Waiters once already. When J. R. Smith got shipped to Cleveland, he knew it was his last chance and fell in line. Waiters still seems to think he’s the best player in the league, itching for a chance to prove how wronged he’s been. For the Lakers’ sake, they should stay away. For entertainment purposes, sign Dion up ASAP.

8. With All-Star Weekend on the horizon, let’s pay homage to the greatest dunk contest performance of all time.

9. What to make of Kristaps Porzingis? Luka has missed six straight, and Porzingis has averaged 27 in those games, though he’s missed 2 himself. The fit with Doncic hasn’t gelled as expected, however, and the Mavs have fallen to 7th in the West, losers of 5 of their last 8. Porzingis/Doncic lineups outscore opponents by 4.2 points per 100 possessions, a ‘meh’ number considering both of their net overall ratings is 6.3. They are too young and have played too little together to make sweeping judgments on them as teammates, however. Injuries have cut into their time together on the court. The pick and roll between them should devastate in time. Let’s see how they fare when they get healthy in the playoffs.

10. Now just two games behind the Rockets and breathing down their necks for the 5th seed, the play of Oklahoma City this season defends Chris Paul’s career. Paul is one of the great point guards to play the game. He’s elevated so-so supporting casts throughout his career, getting rosters into the playoffs that otherwise would have languished deep in the lottery. He made those above average Rockets’ teams great; his injury likely cost the franchise a title in 2018. Paul’s failures in the postseason and lack of a title hurts his resume, but he never shared the floor with the same talent as his peers. This season’s Thunder squad puts last year’s, with Russell Westbrook and Paul George at the helm, to shame, all because of Paul’s brilliance. Give the man his due.