NBA playoffs: East difference-makers could be the change they wish to see in the world

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Thumbnail image for nba_wallace_250.jpgWhile the Eastern Conference playoffs may lack the volatility of the West in the first round, there are still all kinds of characters scrambling about looking to cause mayhem. There’s something to be said about being in a series with no expectations, and underdogs looking to seize the moment can have a field day if only for a game or two.

Something, I think, is lost among the talk of difference-makers and x-factors; while such players would obviously swing the fortunes of their team in a particular series, x-factors also have the ability to significantly alter the playoff outlook in a loss.

Think Andre Iguodala against the Magic last year, as he led the upstart Sixers to an early series lead over the Magic. In doing so, he awoke the real Orlando, and the Dwight Howard took that team all the way to the Finals. Think Joe Johnson in 2008, whose Hawks took the Celtics to seven games in the first round. Does Boston go all the way to the title if not for their early, energizing battle with Atlanta?

Early playoff opponents can expose weaknesses to be exploited by later teams, wear down the opposition with a long series, or summon something within their opponents that drives them to further victories. All of these things are what make even the lesser Eastern Conference playoff teams interesting to watch, even if they don’t stand much of a chance to take the series.

With that, I present you the players to watch in the East, who are capable of making an impact on the series level, or shaping the grander playoff picture:

Derrick Rose (Chicago Bulls): Rose showed in last season’s playoffs that he’s ready for the big stage. We shouldn’t expect an equally scintillating team performance from the Bulls this year, but that doesn’t mean Derrick isn’t a must-watch player for every minute he’s on the floor. Rose will be the first test for the Cavaliers’ D, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Derrick poke a few holes in Cleveland’s perimeter. His ability to run the pick-and-roll will also be crucial, as Rose can use Joakim Noah’s quickness against the likes of Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Shaquille O’Neal, even if its less effective against Anderson Varejao et al. The Cavs are much improved in defending the pick-and-roll, but they could still suffer against finishers like Noah (who could set a precedent for Kendrick Perkins, Jermaine O’Neal, and Dwight Howard).

Gerald Wallace (Charlotte Bobcats): The Bobcats don’t stand much of a chance to beat the Magic, but their upset hopes lie with Wallace. Gerald an All-NBA caliber defender, but the real reason he’s on this list is because of his offense. Wallace seems to be a completely new offensive player this year, sporting a better jumper (especially from three) and a far smoother style than he’s ever displayed before. He’s always been an instinctive scorer, but now he’s a more polished one. With Stephen Jackson’s injured, the Bobcats’ dismal offense will rely on Wallace more than ever, and whether or not his offensive improvements hold up against the Magic D is a big question mark.

Marvin Williams, (Atlanta Hawks): Marvin is the epitome of a traditional x-factor, but what he actually represents is balance. It’s assumed that the Hawks should have no problem taking care of the Bogut-less Bucks in the first round, which means that Atlanta’s most likely second-round opponent would be the Orlando Magic. Just as Wallace’s singular brilliance could push the Magic, how would Orlando respond to a team of balanced scorers? The Hawks’ roster is anything but top heavy, and their style on both ends of the court speaks to their versatility. Should Marvin be able to provide supplementary scoring to balance Joe Johnson, Jamal Crawford, Al Horford, Josh Smith, and Jamal Crawford, the Hawks could expose a weakness in Orlando’s armor.

Michael Beasley (Miami Heat): Be easy, Mike Beasley. The Heat are a fantastic defensive team, and that should do two things: scare the hell out of the Celtics and give Miami a decent shot at the 4-5 upset. They don’t even sniff a first round series victory without Beasley’s help, though. Beas is a thoroughly confounding player, and though he has the raw offensive skills to really blitz Boston, he probably won’t. It would just make too much sense for a player with that much talent to bother with capitalizing on it, and instead Mike will continue in his role as a wild card. However, should Beasley get into an offensive rhythm early in the series, he could help Dwyane Wade dismantle a Celtics defense that has struggled lately. Even if that doesn’t usher the Heat into the second round, it could go a long way in erasing Boston’s defensive prestige.  

Rutgers uses NBA incomes of Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Andre Drummond, Steven Adams to pitch recruits

AUBURN HILLS, MI - MAY 24:  Ray Allen #20 of the Boston Celtics goes up for a shot over Richard Hamilton #32 of the Detroit Pistons in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2008 NBA Playoffs on May 24, 2008 at the Palace at Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Michigan.  The Celtics won 94-80.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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College men’s basketball teams earn vast revenue on the backs of players while conspiring to pay those players no more than a scholarship and some expenses. In lieu of the market dictating player salaries, that revenue is funneled to administrators and coaches – like Rutgers’ Steve Pikiell, who earns $1.6 million per year.

But the money in basketball is real, and college players want a taste. So, many coaches try to sell players that they’ll prepare them for the NBA, where they can make millions.

Which led to this Rutgers tweet featuring former Connecticut players Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Andre Drummond and former Pittsburgh player Steven Adams:

The heck?

Rutgers’ only NBA players in the last two decades were Hamady N’Diaye and Quincy Douby. So, the Scarlet Knights got creative.

An assistant on Pikiell’s staff was an assistant at UConn when Allen and Hamilton played there. Another was an assistant when Drummond was a Huskie. Yet another was a Pitt assistant during Adams’ time.

Just when I thought college teams couldn’t get any cheaper when it comes to their players, here comes Rutgers using its barely earned currency in recruiting.

Connecticut took notice:

Here’s an idea: Instead of squabbling over who deserves credit for getting players paid later, use some of that revenue to pay players now.

(hat tip: Mark Sandritter of SB Nation)

Agent: Former Kansas star Perry Ellis to sign with Hornets

LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 26:  Perry Ellis #34 of the Kansas Jayhawks handles the ball against Mikal Bridges #25 of the Villanova Wildcats and Josh Hart #3 in the second half during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament South Regional at KFC YUM! Center on March 26, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Every 2016 college basketball consensus All-American has reached the NBA.

Ben Simmons, Kris Dunn, Buddy Hield, Jakob Poeltl, Denzel Valentine, Brice Johnson were drafted in the first round and received their guaranteed salaries. Tyler Ulis, Malcolm Brogdon and Georges Niang were picked in the second round and signed contracts. Jarrod Uthoff signed with the Raptors as an undrafted free agent.

And now Perry Ellis is headed to Charlotte.

Gary Bedore of The Kansas City Star:

Former Kansas basketball forward Perry Ellis, who had successful sports hernia surgery Tuesday in Philadelphia, will attend preseason training camp of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets and attempt to make the team as a free agent, his agent, Mark Bartelstein, told The Star on Tuesday afternoon.

He’s expected to miss three to four weeks of individual workouts prior to training camp following surgery.

Ellis, who averaged a team-leading 16.9 points for 33-5 KU last season, does not have a guaranteed contract.

The Hornets have just 13 players – two shy of the regular-season limit – with guaranteed salaries. Ellis will compete with Aaron Harrison (unguaranteed), Mike Tobey ($75,000) and Treveon Graham ($75,000 guaranteed) for those final two spots.

I’d really like the chances of Ellis, who’s polished for a rookie after four years at Kansas, if he weren’t coming off an injury. Even if he’s fully healed to begin training camp, he’ll be rusty. As is, I still think he has a solid shot.

Ellis scored well in the post against college players, but the 6-foot-8 power forward has neither the size nor explosiveness to do that dependably in the NBA. He improved his mid-range and outside shooting during his college career, but he doesn’t have NBA 3-point range. He learned to play solid defense at Kansas, but his basketball intelligence won’t get him as far against NBA opponents due to his middling athleticism.

Sense a theme?

I wouldn’t be surprised if Ellis got a larger guarantee than Tobey or Graham. If the Hornets waive him, they can assign Ellis’ D-League rights to their affiliate. A small guarantee in his NBA contract could be designed to entice him to join the D-League despite its low pay if he gets cut.

But first, he’ll have a chance to earn a regular-season roster spot. And Charlotte has two of those, creating more opportunities than most NBA teams can present. There’s a reason Ellis, one of the most prominent undrafted free agents, picked the Hornets. Soon, we’ll see whether they were justified to pick him.

Serge Ibaka writes he didn’t want trade from Thunder, excited about Orlando opportunity

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 30:  Serge Ibaka #9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts after a play in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 30, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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After nearly every major trade or free agent move, the spin starts. “He wasn’t happy with his role” or some other story line comes out about why said player decided to leave, with the team often spinning the negative.

In the case of Serge Ibaka being traded to Orlando, it was that he thought the Thunder promised him a bigger role then didn’t deliver, and he was frustrated. That may well be true — 98 percent of NBA players think they should have a larger role on their team and get more shots. Ibaka’s role with the Thunder did fade as Enes Kanter‘s increased, he likely did want a larger role.

As you had to expect, Ibaka said none of that is true, writing a diary of his summer for Sports Illustrated. He said he learned of the trade while in Paris.

I never asked to be traded, even though there was a lot of media conjecture that I was unhappy with my role. I had an exit meeting with Billy Donovan and Sam Presti after the season, and both went well. But this is still a business, everybody has to do what’s best for them, and I let my agent deal with the business side of things. I just focus on basketball. I’m not the kind of guy who’s going to go in and ask for a trade, and I would have been happy staying with the Thunder. Playing in the NBA was my dream, and I’d be happy playing anywhere…

Right now, though, I feel like a rookie again. I’m thrilled to be in Orlando. I know that might sound crazy to some people, that I’m excited to go from a contender like the Thunder to a rebuilding team, one that hasn’t made the playoffs in four years, but playing now for Frank Vogel, a coach who prides himself on defense, is very exciting for me. We have a core of like-minded, young, athletic players, which is going to be very fun. We are an old-school, smashmouth team, and I can’t wait to don a Magic uniform on opening night.

Smashmouth is a good word for it. The Magic are going to be a strong defensive team next season, the question is will they get enough points to get the wins they will need to be a playoff team? That’s where Ibaka is going to get the chances he craved — the Magic need him to space the floor and score, not just defend.

Ibaka can be a free agent next summer and he will have options, but in trading Victor Oladipo for him the Magic have made a big bet that Ibaka will stay. Of course, money will be the biggest factor, but if Ibaka likes his role and playing for Vogel, the odds of him staying in central Florida go up.

Craig Sager to get third bone marrow transplant thanks to anonymous donor

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 16:  Legendary TNT sideline reporter Craig Sager talks with Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors at Quicken Loans Arena on June 16, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. Sager is on a one game assignment for ESPN. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Craig Sager couldn’t be in Rio covering the Olympics for NBC, his cancer wouldn’t allow it. That didn’t stop Team USA from reaching out to him before they left. Or from Nike designing a sweet pair of shoes for him.

Now there is good news on his battle against leukemia — he will have a third bone marrow transplant, according to his son Craig Sager II.

This is fantastic news for a man and family who have been through a lot. Hopefully, this treatment is a step forward for Sager, a man beloved by everyone around the NBA.