NBA Playoffs: Thunder to taste playoff experience, do the Lakers have too much of it?

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durant.jpgThe Lakers and the Thunder are a lot alike in some ways. Think about it this way:

Dominant superstar? Check. Second offensive option who is a borderline All-Star? Check. Long, lanky versatile forward? Check. Guys who can come in off the bench and change the game? Check.

But off the court these franchises are totally different. Night and day. The Los Angeles Lakers have 15 NBA championship banners hanging at one end of Staples Center. They won the title last year. Their coach has a ring for every finger. On both hands. They ooze experience to the point of boredom with everything before the playoffs (which could cost them).

The Oklahoma City Thunder are so excited to have made the playoffs the franchise is throwing a parade before the first game. A parade before the ball is thrown up in one playoff game.

All that gets to the real question at the heart of this series: Does the Lakers experience overcome their banged up bodies and sloppy play coming in? Can Oklahoma City have fun and not flinch under a new level of pressure? The stats will tell you this one is very close. But as Portland learned last year, the playoffs are a different kind and level of basketball. Does Oklahoma City have to learn how to win at this level, or can they walk out Sunday and say, “why not now?”

Of course, there are some fun matchups, starting with the ones at the top of the marquee.

There is Kevin Durant, the NBA’s newest superstar, a 6’10” guy with point guard skills, who can hit the three or drive he lane. Stopping him (or guys like him) is why the Lakers got Ron Artest, everyone’s favorite physical defender, blonde (today) and loose cannon. Artest will try to be physical with Durant, and if the refs allow him to be like Phil Jackson he wants he stands a chance of making Durant less efficient.

On the other end, Kobe Bryant is going to face Thabo Sefolosha, who has had success in this matchup — in the team’s last meeting that he held Kobe to 11 points and Kobe actually admitted Sefolosha bothered him. The Thunder are a good defensive team, too, and Sefolosha will get help.


The two key matchups, however, will be elsewhere. UCLA alumni Russell
Westbrook returns to LA to piss off his former fans. We all know the
Lakers have struggled to stop quick point guards for a couple seasons,
and there are few quicker than Westbrook. Here’s a little stat to tell
you how important Westbrook is — when the Thunder blew out the Lakers
last month, Westbrook was 10 of 13 shooting; but in the Lakers three
wins in this series this season, he shot 39 percent.

Derek Fisher is going to need help — and that’s where a healthy Andrew
Bynum comes a key. Westbrook is great in finishing at the rim, but if
Bynum can force him to shoot before that, well, Westbrook takes some of
the ugliest 8-foot shots in the NBA.

The Lakers advantage is Pau Gasol, who has beasted lately  — shooting 65
percent and scoring 26 points per game in the Lakers last five (before
the Clipper game Wednesday). The 7’0″ Gasol will be guarded by the 6’9″
Jeff Green, who is a quality player but cannot bother Gasol when he gets
the ball. The Lakers all to often inexplicably go away from Gasol, if
they do it here they play into the Thunder’s hands.

There is James Harden sparking the Thunder off the bench, versus the
Lamar Odom spark. There is Green trying to pull the Laker bigs away from
the basket. There are a lot of Xs and Os to watch.

Still, the question is how much does experience matter? The Lakers do
not tighten up under pressure; they tend to thrive in it. They don’t
always win but they seem to revel in it. They have won a title because
of it. Look at what Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak told Mike Trudell of
Lakers.com in their series preview:

“At the end of the day, we’re not talking about an inexperienced roster
or coaching staff, he said. “This team, based on what they’ve
accomplished and not just recently deserves the chance to go into the
playoffs and make any adjustments that they feel necessary. We all know
that no matter what happened 10 days ago or three weeks ago, everybody
will be evaluated based on how the season ends.”

The Thunder run their sets but often seem of short-arm shots in the last
five minutes of a game. When the defensive pressure steps up, they seem
to get tight, and with Harden on the bench (in favor of Thabo’s
defense) they rely heavily on Durant to do everything. With more on the
line then their core has ever faced, how will the Thunder execute?
Carefree, like a team with nothing to lose? Or do they get tight?

Much of the nation, pretty tired of Kobe and the Lakers, will be pulling
for the upstarts. Oklahoma City will have America’s hearts. If they can
keep their heads, they have the talent to hang.

But would you really bet against the Lakers here? Neither would I.

Report: Timberwolves signing Toure’ Murry and John Lucas III

CHICAGO, IL - MAY 08: John Lucas III #15 of the Chicago Bulls drives against Elton Brand #42 of the Philadelphia 76ers in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2012 NBA Playoffs at the United Center on May 8, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bulls defeated the 76ers 77-69. 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 Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Alert: Kick your Ricky Rubio trade theories into gear.

The Timberwolves, despite saying they’d keep Rubio for now, are acting like they might not. Minnesota is reportedly signing a couple point guards: Toure’ Murry and John Lucas III.

The Timberwolves already have 15 players – the regular-season roster limit – with guaranteed salaries, including three point guards: Rubio, Kris Dunn and Tyus Jones. Keeping Murry or Lucas would require a roster move.

It could be Kevin Garnett retiring, buying out Nikola Pekovic or some smaller trade. But unless that minor deal involves Jones – Dunn, the No. 5 pick in this year’s draft, isn’t going anywhere – Minnesota would still have enough point guards. Most teams carry three.

The Timberwolves obviously aren’t trading Rubio because they have Murry and Lucas. But Murry or Lucas would help if Minnesota trades Rubio.

Lucas had his best season with Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls, and he can create instant offense in Thibodeau’s grind-it-out scheme. Murry has the length to make an impact defensively.* Most importantly, both play extremely hard – an especially big deal to Thibodeau.

*Murry’s size also allows him to play the wing, which offers him another avenue for sticking. But his frame, special for a point guard, is merely ordinary at shooting guard or small forward.

The Timberwolves still might not be quite ready to trade Rubio. But if Minnesota does deal him to slide Dunn into the starting lineup, Murry or Lucas would provide a decent contingency with Jones in reserve.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey: James Harden ‘only a polarizing figure to people who don’t watch’

Daryl Morey, James Harden
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Do you struggle with evaluating James Harden?

I know I do.

Harden’s Rockets, projected by some to contend for a championship, struggled to a 41-41 record last season. A fair share of their downfall could be pinned on him.

His defensive disinterest is appalling, and it sets a tone. His leadership is questionable, which matters a great deal for someone so empowered. He relies on tricking referees to draw fouls, frequently hooking his defender to create contact.

But I still put him on my All-NBA team, because his offense was so darned effective.

Elite individual offensive contributions are incredibly valuable. Harden’s defensive shortcomings can be hidden in a better team scheme. His leadership issues would matter less in a better team culture. But you can’t simply create what Harden provides offensively.

Long story short, Harden can be tricky to assess no matter how deeply you dive into his plusses and minuses.

Unless you ask Rockets general manager Daryl Morey.

Morey, via Oliver Maroney of Basketball Insiders:

“He’s only a polarizing figure to people who don’t watch,” Morey told Basketball Insiders. “Players voted him MVP [in 2014-15] for a reason. He’s had a winning team every season of his career, with multiple Conference Finals appearances.”

Morey has long defended Harden. That’s what general managers do for the superstar they acquired in tenure-defining trades.

But Morey also put his money where his mouth is. The Rockets will pay Harden an extra $20 million over the next two seasons just to get him locked up one extra year – and that extra year will cost about a max salary.

For better or worse, the Rockets are all in with Harden.

I think that’s a good plan given the alternatives, but I’m also not so sold on Harden that I find it foolproof.

51 Questions: Who is better, Bulls or Knicks?

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 31: Derrick Rose #1 of the Chicago Bulls looses control of the ball after being hit by Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks at the United Center on October 31, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bulls defeated the Knicks 82-81. 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 Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Today PBT launches its 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. Between now and the start of the NBA season we will tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season (we’re taking some weekends off). And we start with a fun topic:

Who is better, the Bulls or the Knicks?

Two proud franchises in two of the nation’s biggest markets, with two fan bases that demand results (but haven’t gotten them lately). Those fan bases are restless because we are talking about two franchises that disappointed and missed the playoffs last season.

That put a lot of pressure on the front offices of the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks, and both were aggressive making changes this summer — Chicago traded Derrick Rose to New York, in one of the bigger deals of the offseason.

Expectations are high in New York and Chicago, with the playoffs considered a baseline.

But did those teams improve that much? Will either make the playoffs?

And which team is better?

Forced to choose, I’d say the Bulls. Barely.

Both are going to be in a battle with other teams — Washington, Charlotte, Miami, Milwaukee, maybe Atlanta,— for the final few playoff spots in the East. Both teams could conceivably miss the playoffs again.

Sorry Derrick Rose, your Knicks are not a superteam.

Rose is the common thread between these two team’s summers.

The Bulls needed to choose between him and Jimmy Butler, and they wisely chose the younger and, at this point, just flat out better Butler. It was the only call (outside trading both for a bottom-out rebuild, which wouldn’t have been wise). The Bulls traded Rose away then proceeded to surround Butler with older guards — Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo — who are not great defenders, have had injury issues, don’t space the floor with their shooting, and need the ball in their hands to be their best. They also added a solid big man in Robin Lopez to the paint, he should at least block some of the shots from opposing wings who blow by Rondo and Wade.

Wade can still score — he averaged 19 points a game last season and showed in the playoffs (and other short stretches) he can put a team on his back and still be a force. He’s not vintage Wade, but he hasn’t slipped as far as critics suggest — most nights now he is good, not great. The knee maintenance program from Miami that had Wade resting some nights (although fewer last season) needs to come north and be part of the plan for him in Chicago.

The Bulls have decent raw talent and depth with Butler, Wade, Lopez, Taj Gibson (at least until he is traded), Nikola Mirotic, Tony Snell, Bobby Portis, and Denzel Valentine. That’s why I have them just slightly ahead of the Knicks. But there are real questions about the fit of this roster. They are going to have defensive holes on the perimeter. On offense, there isn’t near enough shooting to keep opposing teams from just packing the paint and taking away driving lanes for Wade and Butler. (It’s why I think Mirotic will have to start and get heavy minutes with the first unit, they need the floor spacing shooting, the downside is he hurts the defense.) None of this fits what coach Fred Hoiberg ideally wants to run, and does the young coach have the force of personality to keep this team pulling the same direction on the rope?

The Knicks were the team that took on Derrick Rose — then landed Joakim Noah as well. Combine them with Carmelo Anthony and, if this were 2011, they would be title favorites.

The Knicks starting five could be quite good: Rose, Courtney Lee, Anthony (fresh off the Olympics), Kristaps Porzingis, and Noah. But will that group even play 50 games together healthy? If the starters are together for 60-plus games this season, the Knicks almost certainly are a playoff team (and better than the Bulls). But we all know the injury history: Rose missed 244 games in the last five seasons and is not nearly the explosive MVP version of himself, while Noah has missed 68 games the past two seasons and does not move like the Defensive Player of the Year anymore. Anthony has had his injury issues too. That trio could well fall below Knicks’ fans expectations.

Also, none of those guys seem ready to run like new coach Jeff Hornacek wants. The depth behind that starting five is unimpressive, with Brandon Jennings at the point being the best one of the bunch. When those starters start missing games — or just when the starters go to the bench — the Knicks drop off fast. This was a 32-win team last season, how much better did they really get?

Two things could have me underestimating the Knicks. One is Porzingis. He was impressive as a rookie and on his way to being very good, but how big a leap does he make this season? He will certainly be improved, he remains the future Knicks fans build altars to, and if he makes a bigger leap than I predict (which is possible) he can carry this team to the playoffs.

Second, this is contract year Derrick Rose — does he rise to the occasion? Will he be healthier, a better jump shooter, and just more creative than we have seen in recent years.

The bottom line: Both of these teams will be hovering around .500 and in a scramble for the playoffs. Both teams made short-term moves that don’t make a lot of long-term sense considering they have good young pieces to build around. Both fan bases expect more than these teams are going to deliver.

The Bulls depth should have them playing slightly better. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

Of course, the real answer to all questions about who is better in the East should just be answered “Cleveland.”

Jazz guarantee more than $1 million to No. 52 pick Joel Bolomboy, a rare commitment to someone drafted so low

ST LOUIS, MO - MARCH 18:  Joel Bolomboy #21 of the Weber State Wildcats handles the ball in the first half against the Xavier Musketeers during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Scottrade Center on March 18, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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In the first five years of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, two players drafted in the 50s received a $1 million guarantee the same offseason they were selected.

This year, the list has doubled.

The Cavaliers guaranteed $1 million to No. 54 pick Kay Felder, and No. 52 pick Joel Bolomboyjust signed by the Jazz – will get even more.

Bolomboy’s $600,000 salary this season is fully guaranteed, and $452,625 of his salary next season is guaranteed, according to Basketball Insiders. That’s a grand total of $1,052,625 guaranteed on a three-year contract.

Only Tornike Shengelia (No. 54 pick in 2012 from Nets) and Kris Joseph (No. 51 pick in 2012 from Celtics) got more as players picked in the 50s who signed the same offseason under the current CBA. Both received two fully guaranteed seasons.

Bolomboy successfully leveraged a salary-cap environment relatively more favorable to second-rounders than first-rounders. If Utah didn’t make him such a favorable offer, he could’ve accepted the required tender and become a free agent within a year – with numerous potentially offering him a contract. The Jazz, with more cap space than they know what do with, probably didn’t mind paying Bolomboy a little more to secure him at what’s still a low rate for the next three years.

This likely wraps up any preseason competition in Utah for a regular-season roster spot. Bolomboy becomes the 15th Jazz player with a guaranteed 2016-17 salary, so he’ll almost certainly stick beyond the preseason – another plus of this contract.

This gives him security as he tries to develop into a player worthy of a second – presumably higher-paying – NBA contract.