Troy’s Top Ten

Giannis Antetokounmpo, NBA, NBA Playoffs

1.The Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo are in dire straits. A difficult match-up with a determined star and Hall of Fame coach, an expert at navigating the playoffs, has set the organization and its soon to be two-time MVP up for disaster. Milwaukee’s blistering regular seasons the past two years have positioned them as championship contenders, an identifier they don’t seem ready for. Coach Mike Budenholzer has proved this year and last, along with his stint in Atlanta, that, for as savvy as he is with X’s and O’s, he’s deficient at making needed adjustments in the playoffs. Giannis is a free agent after next year; he’s eligible to sign a super max contract extension after this one. If the Bucks cannot find a way out of this series and into the NBA Finals, the rumors of a Giannis exodus from Milwaukee becomes a tidal wave this off-season.

2. Game 1 screamed ineptitude from Milwaukee’s bench. Khris Middleton continued getting scorched, possession after possession, guarding Jimmy Butler in the fourth quarter. Yet Giannis, the Defensive Player of the Year, or even Wes Matthews, guarded Miami’s star. Giannis played dumb after, asserting he only followed coach’s orders. True, Budenholzer should have ordered the switch. Antetokounmpo has a responsibility as a leader, however. If he envisions himself a champion, he has to take the challenge to terminate an opponent flaming his team in the fourth quarter of a playoff game. Especially considering his struggles on offense. The Bucks stagnated on that end too. No ball or player movement, Budenholzer staples, ground the Bucks to a halt. Middleton hucked up prayers, and Giannis tried dribbling into a sea of Miami defenders, turning the ball over and taking ill-advised shots early in the shot clock, rushing to beat the Heat before their defense settled. When Milwaukee ran pick and roll, regardless of the ball handler, with Giannis as the screener, they created looks for him and open 3’s for his teammates. They ignored it too often, however, and are staring at an opponent who doesn’t fear them. Trouble.

3. In the closing minutes of both fourth quarters, the Bucks strained to get points. Giannis and Middleton cannot get points on their own. Their teammates are standing and watching. This was the number 1 offense in the league? Minus George Hill, no one on the roster has played consistent, tough playoff minutes. Milwaukee is being outworked. Erik Spoelstra is embarrassing Mike Budenholzer. Giannis has played only 36 minutes in each game. MVPs cannot sit that long during the playoffs. The Bucks aren’t playing hard, or smart. And take a glance at these rosters. Who is the favorite again?

4. Though Miami figured to rain threes on the Bucks’ defenders in Game 1, Goran Dragic and Butler attacked. Without Eric Bledsoe, Milwaukee’s perimeter defenders could not keep the Heat ball handlers in front of them, forcing Giannis and Brook Lopez into foul trouble early, and tentativeness late. Miami is liquid on offense, however, and flooded Milwaukee with 3’s in Game 2. Whatever Milwaukee tries on defense, the Heat has an answer. And they give a rip. Butler is a bona fide dog, a playoff closer in the truest sense. For all his shooting troubles, Butler feels the moment and delivers when his team needs him. Dragic has scored his entire career. He’s tricky with the ball and can score on all levels. Both are masters in the pick and roll, and using Bam Adebayo as a rim runner makes the top-rated Bucks defense look slow and unsure in the half court. The Heat are ready for their moment and have the only validated playoff closer in the series on their roster. Good luck, Milwaukee.

5. While the Raptors earned their playoff experience with a title last year, not having Kawhi Leonard to settle half court possessions is causing problems. The Celtics have the best go to scorer in the series (Jayson Tatum), and Boston’s superb transition defense stymied Toronto’s speed in Games 1 and 2. The Raps’ offense gums up. While Serge Ibaka has been great, shooting the 3 ball at 50% and providing length defensively, the rest of the squad is AWOL. Pascal Siakam needs to find more than 16 shots. He’s struggling to get easy buckets against Boston’s length. Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet have to work Kemba Walker early and often, the weak link in Boston’s athletic, rangy defense. Whoever Walker is guarding has to attack him and force Boston’s defense into rotation. They tried this in Game 2 with success, yet didn’t remain disciplined enough to stay with the strategy. Boston is too good in transition for the Raptors to count on offense from the break. They have to get the Celtics moving on defense in the half-court, then knock down shots. They’re only shooting 32% from behind the arc in the series. That should change, but it starts with attacking Kemba.

More Kemba in the pick and roll, Toronto

6. Time to add Boston to the collection of title contenders. Only the Clippers can match their length on defense. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker are the best scoring trio in the league. Marcus Smart is maddening, a hate watch for anyone other than Celtic fans. He’s one of the best wing defenders in the league, however, gets every loose ball, and makes 3-4 plays per game that affect wins and losses. And once every couple of weeks he gets hot from deep and wins a game with his shooting. They’re size deficient, and Giannis could give them problems in the next round, as would the Lakers. The answer to whether they’re a true contender falls on Tatum. He’s been a superstar to this point, but will he keep it up? Tatum made it to the line 14 times in Game 2, a huge positive for Boston. He’s struggled early in his career with passivity. An aggressive Tatum is a must if the Celtics hope to challenge for the title. After this round, he’ll see either Giannis or Jimmy Butler, then Kawhi and Paul George or LeBron and AD. Is he ready to stand firm against the league’s elite?

7. Jamal Murray vs. Donovan Mitchell was the best show put on in the bubble. Why watch basketball, if not to see the ball go through the rim, and from deep? Murray shot 53% from 3, Mitchell 51%. Bad defenses? Yes. But these young’ns, questioned in the early stages of their careers (both are 23) whether they could lead teams, carried their rosters throughout this seven-game series. A “Can you top this!?” gunning contest erupted, and each showed an ability to meet the moment. The Nuggets are over matched against the Clippers, and Murray will struggle often with Patrick Beverley, Paul George, and Kawhi Leonard in his jock. So what? Can they win titles? Are they perennial All-Stars? Do they deserve their max contracts? Forget the blather. Enjoy these two for what they are. Worry later about what they can be.

Murray’s shot making to end Game 6 is just………

8. Game 7 pressure showed itself in the Denver and Utah 80-78 final score, an enormous drop over the first six games, in which the teams averaged 234 points combined. If Denver hopes to compete with the Clips, however, they better hope they found some plus defensive lineups. Torrey Craig, Jerami Grant, and Monte Morris all looked strong in Game 7, but the return of Gary Harris for the Nuggets was key. Harris hounded Donovan Mitchell in the closing minutes, forcing bad shots and swiping the ball away on Utah’s penultimate possession. Harris was, and is, a complete disaster on offense, however. 1-9 on Tuesday, he launched ill-advised shots early in the shot clock and looks uncomfortable putting the ball on the floor. Offense comes and goes for Denver’s defensive stalwarts, but they must be on the floor if the Nuggets have a chance at slowing L.A. on offense. For a competitive series, these guys must knock down open shots, relieving a bit of the scoring pressure off of Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic.

9. Just because the bubble is protecting players from COVID-19 doesn’t mean they can’t pick up something else. Marcus Morris seems to have contracted a case of Draymond Green disorder. He swung down on Luka Doncic in Game 6 of their first round series, earning an ejection and $35,000 fine. The league should have suspended him for at least another game. He targeted Doncic throughout the series, calling him a racially insensitive remark, stepping on his ankle, and waylaying the Dallas star with hard fouls. Morris claims he’s not dirty, yet continues with the non-basketball stuff. He’s taken on the role of enforcer, and regardless of whether he’ll cop to it, seems more interested in picking fights than playing basketball. If his antics continue against Denver, the league needs to take more drastic action.

10. James Harden saved himself with a game saving block on Lou Dort’s 3, allowing the Rockets to escape into the second round. Game 7’s typically turn sloppy, and Harden is still uncomfortable in win or go home situations. 17 points on 4-15 shooting provide another example of Harden’s timidity during legacy altering games. He becomes unsure of himself, taking bad shots and making questionable decisions on drives to the rim. The lack of success in the past has crept into his present mindset. The Rockets should push the Lakers in the next round. They match up well. L.A. has no answer defensively for Harden or Russell Westbrook. Anthony Davis will dominate, but can any of the ancillary Lakers punish the Rockets for going small? The Lakers can’t shoot and the Rockets will attempt to bludgeon them from 3. The Houston small ball experiment is on the ballot in round 2. But this is James Harden vs. LeBron James. The greatest thinker, maybe in league history, versus an unsure superstar in crunch time? An entertaining series, sure, but the result is obvious.

 

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

 

Splitting up the Cavs’ Dueling Banjos

Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News, Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, NBA

Point guard is the most important position in the league. Good floor generals control every aspect of an NBA game; they define winners and losers each night. The Cleveland Cavaliers have invested in lead guards over the past two drafts, but does either fit the position? They have to score, find teammates, and defend opposing ball handlers every night. No playoff team is deficient at the position. Have the Cavs found their leader?

Darius Garland’s game shows signs. The process has been slow; the rust he accumulated from not playing basketball for a year was clear over the first two months of the season. Unsure of himself and inefficient, Garland too often has been passive with the ball and hesitant to shoot open jumpers. He’s played an apologetic style, wanting only to stay out of the way to his teammates happy. The uneasiness is wearing away, however, buoyed by a growing confidence in his shot. Before Thanksgiving, Garland shot 34% from 3 on 4 attempts per game. Since then he’s at 39% on 5.5 shots from behind the arc. Garland’s NBA ready skill was shooting; Cavs operatives marveled at the pre-draft clinic he put on in Los Angeles from deep. His form is more consistent, and he’s getting shots on the rim quicker than earlier in the season.

His vision shows flashes. He’ll mix in a 5 or 6 assist game bunched around 1 or 2 dish contests. Garland will always shoot well; his playmaking will make or break him in this league. If he can hand out 7-8 assists per game he’ll become a potential All-Star. Against Charlotte last week, Garland had 8 assists and 1 turnover. The Cavs lost by 3, yet Garland was the only starter with a positive plus/minus at +17.

The ball fake, drive, and dish. Reads the defense perfectly. Superb by Garland

Garland sharing the floor with good defensive players has been beneficial for the Cavs. Though they’ve played only 14 minutes together, the Garland/Exum/Porter/Nance/Henson lineup has shown promise, outscoring opponents by 13.9 points per 100 possessions. The Garland/Henson pairing is being outscored by 4.2 points per 100 possessions in 130 minutes, the best net two man combination for the rookie. Not great, but it proves he’s better with a plus defender on the floor with him. The Cavs have two competent defenders in Dante Exum and John Henson. Allowing Garland to play minutes with those two will take pressure off defensively and give him more control on offense.

Though still early in both players’ careers, these numbers point to a need to stagger more of his and Collin Sexton’s minutes. Sexton is great in transition and has improved on defense. He’s a valuable NBA player. Sexton’s focus is on scoring. That’s fine; there’s a spot for him and his skill set on this team. Garland has a higher ceiling, however, and fits better with a broader range of players. In time, Sexton will be more valuable off the bench in the Jordan Clarkson role. The lead guard on a playoff team cannot be as one-dimensional offensively as Sexton. Too many Cavs’ possessions consist of Sexton dribbling the duration of the shot clock, the only player to touch the ball. He doesn’t purposely ignore his teammates, but he isn’t hunting them or identifying mismatches, either. The Kevin Love blow up from Saturday night resulted from Sexton being oblivious to Love’s mismatch in the post against Chris Paul. John Beilein took responsibility, but Sexton is the culprit here.

Garland’s skill set includes a wider range of talents. He sees the floor better and seeks his teammates. He’s a better shooter and is just as capable of getting to the rim in the half-court. Are they franchise changers? It’s too early, but both can grow into valuable pieces on a good team. This is the test for the higher ups in the franchise. Can they develop the talented young players they’ve drafted and set complementary pieces around them?

What’s What Around the League

1.The buzz for Michael Porter Jr. started over the summer, when reports from Denver raved about the Nuggets’ 2018 1st round draft pick. Back surgery caused him to miss the 2018-2019 season, but insiders claimed he would break out in 2019. Then nothing. He received 9 DNPs during Denver’s first 21 games and averaged 8 minutes per when he stepped on the floor. Something has changed over the past week, however. In the Nuggets’ last four games, Porter is averaging 20 minutes, 15.5 points, and is shooting 74% from the field, 50% from 3. A 25 point outburst in Indiana last Thursday on 11-12 from the floor has made the league take notice. Is this the Michael Porter we’ve been waiting for? If so, Denver is a title contender. Nikola Jokic has rounded into shape over the last month and looks like the Joker of old. They’ve won 17 of 24 and sit just 3 games below the Lakers in the West. If this Porter continues to show through May, the West becomes a three team race.

2. Zach LaVine is an NBA scorer. He averages 23 a game and has improved his 3-point shot throughout his career, from 34% as a rookie to 39% this year on 8 attempts per. But…… man, he just isn’t a smart, winning player. Down two against Utah with 30 seconds left and a full shot clock, LaVine buried his head and attacked the basket, only to find Rudy Gobert waiting for him at the rim. Next possession, down 4, LaVine takes an abhorrent step back 3. No chance, game over. LaVine is polarizing. His scoring and increased efficiency give some hope, yet he isn’t improving on defense. The Bulls are 9 points better on that end when he sits. Add it up and you have a losing player who the Bulls owe 39 million to in 2021 and 2022.

Attacking Gobert at the rim is a fool’s errand

3. Ja Morant puts asses in seats.

4. A win Thursday at home against Memphis snapped an 8 game losing streak for Sacramento. The Kings are the latest example why it’s foolhardy to trust poor ownership, no matter the talent level. While De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley have missed extended time because of injury, dysfunction in the Kings’ organization remains the primary culprit of their continued losing. Dewayne Dedmon, a nice free agent pickup over the summer, has fallen out of Luke Walton’s rotation and requested a trade through the media, resulting in a $50,000 fine. Buddy Hield complained last week about trust issues creating problems in the locker room. This coincided with a horrid 7 game stretch for Hield in which he shot 26% from 3. The Kings have the most talent on their roster since the Chris Webber days. If Fox can stay healthy, they’ll have a shot to make a run at the last playoff spot in the West, but the sniping and losing culture in Sacramento seems too strong to overcome.

5. It’s a make or miss league, and no one epitomizes that more than Mike Scott. The 76er bench is more beholden to Scott to score than it should be, and they’re vulnerable to the unpredictability of his 3-point shot. He’s shooting 35% on the season from deep, a respectable number, yet isn’t reliable game to game. In 12 contests he’s made zero threes; in 12 others, he’s shot 50% or better from behind the arc. Philly’s offense can’t get consistency from anywhere. A steady Scott would be a huge boost in the playoffs but, like everyone else on this roster, he’s impossible to predict.

6. The Rockets are fascinating to watch. Their energy and effort level leaves Mike D’Antoni wanting many nights, then James Harden starts cooking, and the show begins. A step-back 3 over an excellent defender in Al Horford, net. Guarded one-on-one by possible All-Defensive selection Ben Simmons, an easy blow by and layup. Jason Richardson’s up next, a long, quick, capable defender in his own right. Another layup. And another step-back dagger. Harden is one of the greatest scorers in the history of the NBA, and he carved an outstanding defensive team in Philly with ease on his way to 44. The Rockets aren’t always fun to watch, but sitting back and enjoying a dialed-in Harden is.

7. It’s a minute detail, but why is getting someone to in-bound the basketball after a made basket such a chore? If the point guard is the first one to the ball, forget about it. He’ll motion for a teammate to do the task instead of throwing the ball in play and calling for it back. Big men are busy trying to get back on offense. Wing guys are sprinting to position themselves in the corners. Good transition teams seem to have a better plan of action for this overlooked play, realizing they can take advantage of a sleepy opponent 3-4 times a game. Have a plan to start the offense as quickly as possible is all.

8. There isn’t a number that can define how important Marcus Smart is to winning. His shooting numbers are bad: 37% overall, 32% from 3. 11.5 points a game is fine, as are his 4.7 assists. His on/off numbers are even bad; Boston is 5.4 points better offensively and 1.1 better defensively when he’s on the bench. If there’s a loose ball, however, Smart gets it. Need a big stop on defense? Smart is there with a steal or a drawn charge. He’ll clang ill-advised 3’s off the back of the rim most of the night until he drains one with less than a minute left. The little things are an abstract measurement meant to describe the indescribable, and Smart is a little things poster child. Here, the numbers lie. You need Marcus Smart on your team.

9. What in Sam Hell is this guy doing?

10. Steven Adams is a bull, a one man road grader. Dig into the hustle stats; his name litters the leaderboards. He’s ninth in loose balls recovered per 36 minutes. Fourth in screens set, fifth in screen assists. He gums up opposing offenses, sitting fifth in contested twos per game (NBA.com). Oklahoma City has surprised this year and sits 7th in the West, comfortably in playoff position. Would they consider trading Adams, however? His contract is huge (25 mil this year, 27 mil next), and his timeline doesn’t match with the franchises’. A salary match makes a trade difficult, but if OKC moves him, watch Boston. Thin on the front line, playoff match-ups with Giannis, Joel Embiid and Al Horford, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner, and Bam Adebayo loom. The Celtics are close, a threat to make the Finals, but size is lacking. A wall of a screen setter and elite rebounder could be the piece they need to push them deep into the playoffs.

 

Are the Cleveland Cavaliers falling off a Cliff?

Cleveland Cavaliers, Collin Sexton, NBA

A lousy week for the Cleveland Cavaliers, the first of the season, is cause for concern. Will this team descend to the depths most everyone predicted for them, or can John Beilein, the coaching staff, and the veterans rid the team of the bad habits of the past three games? The first real challenge of Beilein’s NBA coaching career is upon him. The effort is there, but the results haven’t been.


In Philadelphia last Tuesday the Cavs played tough, hanging with the 76ers until being shut down offensively in the last five minutes of the 4th quarter. While one of the better games the team has played, issues affecting them now began creeping into their play during the Sixers’ 4th quarter comeback. Too often, the Cavs are gripping too tightly; while hanging in, they’re a few bad plays from losing confidence and allowing an avalanche to bury them. If they miss a few shots on offense or an assignment on defense, they lose their margin of error.


Collin Sexton, Kevin Love, and Jordan Clarkson drove the offense in Philly. After leading by 5 with 6 minutes left, the Cavs struggled to get good looks against the tough 76er defense. While Beilein’s offense needs movement and passing, in late game situations he should lean more on his bucket getters. Sexton’s quickness frustrated Philly all night. When he wasn’t beating their defense down the floor, he exposed cracks in the half court by getting to the rim. In crunch time, however, when the defense and nerves tightened, the offense lost its flow. In the last two minutes, Beilein should have gone to a Sexton/Love pick and roll. Sexton’s quickness and Love’s ability to either pop and shoot or post up a smaller defender on a switch would have created better shots. On the final possession, a Clarkson/Love pick and roll generated Love’s wide open three that was a touch strong, bouncing off the back of the rim. Get to those pick and rolls earlier.

Clarkson/Love pick and roll. Clarkson draws the D, Love gets a great look


Sexton’s quickness is elite. More at ease, he’s seeing the floor and taking advantage of defenses much better than a year ago. If opponents give him baseline, he attacks and gets to the paint. If his defender hesitates getting back, Sexton is past him and at the rim. When he’s in control and sure of himself, he’s a joy to watch. Once he gets to the bucket, however, he needs to finish. While the NBA average field goal percentage at the rim is 64.6% (nbadata.com) Sexton only shoots 59% (nba.com) from there.

Sexton sees the defense is giving him baseline, so he takes it


On defense, Sexton has improved from his rookie year. His defensive rating a year ago, 118.1, has improved a staggering amount, down to 108.6 this year (nba.com). He works harder on that end and has a better feel for schemes while being more in tune with what his man wants to do. Sexton is a worker who plays hard and fights to make himself and his teammates better. Though undersized, he’s long and driven. That alone will allow him to be an average or better defender.


Defensively, he needs to work through picks more aggressively. A problem all of last year, Sexton still goes under too many screens against plus three point shooters. Any space given to good shooters is death. By ducking under the screener, Sexton is giving some of the best shooters in the league wide gaps to get shots off.


A bad loss to the Knicks in Madison Square Garden last night has the team spiraling. Offensively, they’re gummed up. The Cavs spend too much time thinking instead of reacting. Catch and shoots turn into catch and pump fakes, catch and jab steps. Beilein’s system hasn’t taken hold yet. This is causing long scoring droughts. Cleveland’s coaches should preach aggression on offense. The passivity is causing turnovers, shot clock violations, and bad shots.


The week ahead consists of a rematch with the Heat in Miami, a trip to Dallas, and a visit to Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse by Damian Lillard and the Blazers. All playoff worthy teams, the Cavs are in danger of being blown out in each if they continue their struggles. Effort is no longer good enough. While they may have sneaked up on opponents early, teams are ready for a fight from them. The defensive lapses and offensive stagnation must improve or 20 point losses will become the norm. Consistency is the next step.

What’s What Around the League

1. Save the Phoenix Suns, perhaps the biggest surprise early is the Miami Heat. The Heat are using defense (a 101.1 defensive rating, 4th in the league according to NBA.com) and passing (65.5% assist percentage, 2nd in the league according to NBA.com) as guide posts during their 9-3 start. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo excel at each, both excellent passers who also set the tone defensively. Adebayo ranks second in assists per game at the center position, trailing only Nikola Jokic. A big man who can rebound, bring the ball up the floor, and distribute to his teammates is a luxury few teams have. The rest of the roster just fits. Goran Dragic has accepted his bench role, providing scoring and playmaking. Kendrick Nunn has been the G-League find of the year, giving the offense an unexpected punch. Tyler Herro has impressed, as expected, as a rookie, averaging 13.4 off the bench. Meyers Leonard is shooting 68% from 3. Top to bottom, the entire roster contributes. The Heat aren’t going anywhere.

2. The Philadelphia 76ers will be in the title discussion all year, but unless their offense improves, the chances of them winning the Larry O’Brien trophy are slim. Off to a ho-hum 7-5 start, their 18th ranked offense (106.1 rating) will continue to hold them back if Tobias Harris doesn’t improve. While Joel Embiid is a superstar and MVP candidate, a center can’t control the game in today’s NBA during crunch time. Harris, miscast in the role, is the only option on a team lacking shooting and playmaking threats. Ben Simmons cannot shoot and refuses to do so, making him a liability in crunch time situations. Harris, shooting 24% from 3 so far, must improve for the Sixers offense to function at the end of games. Better cast as a third option, it may be asking too much of Harris, yet Philly has no other choice.

3. Carmelo Anthony has signed with Portland, but will he help? The Blazers have struggled out of the gate at 5-8 and 11th in the West during a year the team expected to build off last year’s Western Conference Finals appearance. Is Anthony the answer? While there’s no doubt he’ll get buckets, Melo has been a disaster defensively for years. A turnstile on that end, his inefficient scoring will not make up for the holes on that end of the floor. A Hall of Famer who deserves a place in the league, Melo hasn’t shown the willingness to adapt his game as he’s aged, however. Offensive possessions where he gets the ball on the right side of the floor, jabs, jabs, jabs, dribbles, dribbles, backs into his man, then takes a fall away jumper won’t help Portland. Melo can be a scoring punch off the bench for 15-20 minutes a game while grabbing a few rebounds, but will be settle for that role?

Vintage Melo

4. Nikola Jokić may be the best passing big man ever.

5. The flashes suggest he’s a future All-Star, but Caris LeVert cannot stay healthy and it’s becoming likely he never will. Off to a great start and averaging 17, 5, and 4 while shooting 36% from 3 and playing excellent defense, he’s now out 5 or 6 weeks following right thumb surgery, an all too common occurrence with him. LeVert possesses the size and scoring ability to be a star in the league, but until be proves he can stay healthy for more than a month at a time, the Nets cannot count on his production.

6. An early season meltdown in New York is surprising to no one. After the Cavs demolished the Knicks two Sundays ago, both president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry found it necessary to hold an impromptu press conference to let every know the obvious, that the Knicks are a dumpster fire. A team with minimal talent, the brain trust’s embarrassment of losing Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant to the Nets caused the signing of a slew of power forwards. The franchise’s hopes now rest with rookie R.J. Barrett. The only ones expecting anything out of this roster, the brain trust in New York is flailing, and the problem lies with ownership. James Dolan is a horrible owner and the Knicks will struggle as long as he remains. Fans overlook the main problem with bad organizations because they can do nothing about it. Horrid ownership, like in Cleveland with the Browns, drags franchises down, regardless of who the players, coaches, or GMs are. Something is waiting around every corner, another piece of drama for these stuck in the mud franchises. The pompous billionaires who own them aren’t smart enough to get out of their own way. James Dolan deserves the team and organization he’s built.

7. Skip Hawks’ games at your own peril. Trae Young is must watch, and along with Luka Doncic provides the best night to night show in the league. He proved it again last week in Denver, posting a ridiculous 42 point, 11 assist stat line. While his pull up 35 footers are worthy on their own, his mid-range floaters, slick dribbling, and acute passing mesmerize, drawing the eye to him where ever he is on the court. Write him down as an All-Star lock one month into his sophomore season.

8. If you aren’t on the Ja Morant train, time’s a wasting. Memphis will be a force, and soon.

9. James Harden: 39.5 points, 7.8 assists. Can he keep this up? The answer is yes, and it may get worse for opponents. Harden is only shooting 42% from the field, 33% from 3. Career wise, those numbers are 44% and 36.5%. What’s driving this scoring explosion, you ask? Harden is shooting 15 free throws a game and making 13 of them, jarring to see on paper. Harden’s unique size, quickness, and ball handling skills, along with the hidden advantage of being a lefty, gives him an uncanny ability to get to the line. Defenders aren’t used to guarding lefty’s; no matter how well they prepare, their minds play tricks on them, forgetting for a handful of possessions, at least, that Harden is going left. To average 40 for a season, the free throws are critical. In the years Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50.4 and 44.8, he got to the line 17 and 14 times per game. It’s impossible to score that much without forcing the action and getting to the line. While previously unthinkable, could Harden average 40 for the year?

10. Load management is a way of life, so teams, fans, television execs, and reporters may as well get used to it. Though old timers stomp their feet and pound their fists discussing the controversial topic, the top 15-20 players in the league wield the power in the NBA. If they feel the strategy will keep them healthy for the post season, it will continue. Fans and media have asked for this. As long we’re judging players disproportionately on the number of rings on their fingers at the end of their careers, load management will get worse. By comparing every player to Michael Jordan and hyperbolizing his 6-0 Finals record, those judging the game have decided what’s most important to a player’s legacy. If titles are what you’ve decided define legacies, this is a byproduct of that.