NBA Playoffs: Nene's injury should be the final straw for Denver

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The irony of Nene’s potentially season-ending knee injury is unmistakable: Carmelo Anthony asked for help from his teammates, and fate responded by taking one away. It’s pretty horrible news for a Denver team just now starting to pull things together offensively (and for a talented player like Nene who has been around this block once or twice), especially considering the team’s rotation alternatives. The Nuggets will be forced to rely on Chris Andersen and Johan Petro to hold down the middle on defense and provide some scoring, neither of which seems a particularly likely result.

Then again, stranger things have happened in this series. After the Jazz lost Mehmet Okur for the season (and much more) due to a ruptured Achilles tendon, they appeared to be paper-thin in the middle. The unpolished Kyrylo Fesenko was deemed Okur’s replacement in the starting lineup, and it was assumed that Utah’s season was well on its way toward an unfortunate conclusion. The Jazz had already survived an injury to Andrei Kirilenko to keep things competitive early in the series, and the loss of the one proven center on the roster looked to be too big of a setback for Utah to overcome.

That obviously hasn’t been the case. The Jazz didn’t miss a beat with Okur sidelined, and Fesenko turned out to be far more competent than anyone imagined. He’s not contributing a ton in the box score, but Fes is giving Utah quality minutes in a jam, which is well more than most expected of him.

The same result is technically a possibility for the Nuggets, and hell, maybe Petro will have a game to remember on Friday. It’s just not very likely. Denver still hasn’t figured out how to stop Utah’s offense, and replacing a capable defender — at least in theory — like Nene with a block-chaser like Chris Andersen and a Johan Petro like Johan Petro doesn’t bode well for the Nuggets’ ability to stop anyone.

It’s not that Fesenko is in any way a superior player to Andersen or even Petro, for that matter. Denver just doesn’t have any time or possessions to spare. Every second of basketball the Nuggets play in this series will be laced with the threat of elimination. A few more missteps and that’s all for Denver, which puts the Nuggets’ bigs in a particularly tough situation.

Last night’s win does offer some hope for the Nuggets, if only because productive scoring nights from Chauncey Billups (21 points), Kenyon Martin (18), J.R. Smith (17), and Arron Afflalo (12) proved that if nothing else, Denver can still outscore Utah on some nights. Chris Andersen even played a fine game (10 points, seven rebounds)  in Nene’s absence. But the series precedent tells us that those are exceptions to the standard. Those are notable performances because of each of those players has struggled (relatively) in this series, and it took all of them clicking offensively to secure a must-win affair.

To expect the same over the final game(s) of the series is to ignore the significance of the first four contests, which showcased the brilliance of Deron Williams and Utah’s ability to execute above all else. Combine those series-long trends with Nene’s unfortunate injury, and and Game 5 seems to be a brief respite from Denver’s turmoil rather than the beginning of their salvation. 

Russell Westbrook laughs off Kevin Durant question (video)

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, right, gestures after scoring as forward Kevin Durant stands by during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Friday, Jan. 8, 2016, in Los Angeles. The Thunder won 117-113. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
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How does Russell Westbrook feel about Kevin Durant leaving the Thunder for the Warriors?

Westbrook has been silent on the signing, leaving Durant and anonymous sources to speak on his behalf — and the NBA world hungry for his response.

The first glimpse:

Feel free to read way too much into that laugh.

(hat tip: reddit user esoh)

Phil Jackson: ‘Today’s players simply lack the skills to play the triangle’

New York Knicks president Phil Jackson speaks to reporters during a news conference in Greenburgh, N.Y., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Derek Fisher was fired as New York Knicks coach Monday, with his team having lost five straight and nine of 10 to fall well back in the Eastern Conference playoff race. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
AP Photo/Seth Wenig
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See whether you can follow this timeline:

1. Knicks president Phil Jackson stated his commitment to the triangle offense entering the 2015-16 season.

2. Jackson in a December interview published today, via Charley Rosen of Today’s Fastbreak:

Today’s players simply lack the skills to play the triangle. They know how to play one-on-one, catch-and-shoot, and they’ve mastered crossover dribbles, spins, playing off of screens and step-back shots. They don’t know how to execute things like inside-reverse pivots and other basic footwork. They have no sense of timing or organization. They don’t really know how to play five-on-five basketball. It’s strictly generational.

That’s why Fish {Derek Fisher} wants to uptempo the offense. And why he spends a half-hour before practice doing lots of skills work.

3. Jackson fires coach Derek Fisher, who — according to interim coach Kurt Rambis — resisted the triangle.

4. Jackson said the Knicks would continue to run the triangle and even ran a triangle camp for New York players.

5. Jackson hired Jeff Hornacek, who has little triangle experience, and said the new coach wouldn’t have to run the triangle.

¯_(ツ)_/¯

Maybe Jackson, relying on his December thoughts, finally changed his mind about the triangle. Maybe he believes players can still be taught triangle skills and actually plans to have Hornacek use the system.

Or maybe the Knicks are just rudderless.

Adam Silver not a fan of LeBron James’, Kevin Durant’s 1+1 contracts

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - FEBRUARY 21 :  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder tries to keep the ball away from LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the third quarter of a NBA game at the Chesapeake Energy Arena on February 21, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 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 J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
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LeBron James has signed a couple 1+1 contracts since rejoining the Cavaliers. Kevin Durant inked a 1+1 deal to join the Warriors.

The superstars are maximizing their compensation under the NBA’s salary-cap rules and extracting leverage over their teams in the process. Risky? Somewhat. If either player gets hurt, he has no long-term security. But LeBron and Durant are so good, teams would still line up to pay them max money after a major injury. There’s a reason even the next class of stars hasn’t duplicated this strategy.

But, as limited as 1+1 contracts are, NBA commissioner Adam Silver doesn’t give them a ringing endorsement.

Silver, via Cleveland.com:

“One of the unintended consequences (of doing contracts like James) I feel on behalf of the players is the fact that they end up putting themselves in this position where they’re taking enormous financial risk,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver told cleveland.com. “The system is designed for guys to enter into long term contracts, so, and you can only get so much insurance. So one of the unintended consequences is they take risk beyond what we would like to see them take.

“The other thing is, the system is designed and incentivizes players to stay with the same teams,” Silver said. “At the same time I respect free agency so if they make those decisions to leave, that’s fine too. But as I said, I’d like to talk to the union about maybe modifying the system so there’s a little bit more of an incentive to stay with your existing team.”

Silver sounds like he might be overreacting to a narrow problem — something that might not even be a problem at all.

Not long ago, the NBA had a real problem: Contracts were too long, and raises were too high. Players signed long-term deals, declined over the life of them and became deadweight by the end. Teams were too often strapped with expensive unproductive players, and because those players ate up significant cap room, there wasn’t money left to sign upgrades.

So, the league has pushed to save teams from themselves. Two Collective Bargaining Agreements ago, the max contract length was seven years and max raises were 12.5%. In the previous CBA, it was six years and 10.5%. Now, it’s five years and 7.5%.

Simply, teams aren’t allowed to offer LeBron or Durant enough long-term security where that would trump a one-year deal — especially with the salary cap rising rapidly.

Last year, the salary cap rose 11.0%. This year, it was 34.5%.

The max 7.5% raises — which LeBron and Durant can’t even yet, because without full Bird Rights, they’re limited to 4.5% — won’t cut it. Even if LeBron and Durant are totally committed to staying with their current teams, there’s more money in signing a new contract each year as the max skyrockets in line with the cap. However, that opens the door for a change of heart and leaving in free agency.

The max-salary tiers also encourage 1+1 deals. A player’s max depends on his experience, and it escalates among three tiers: 0-6 years, 7-9 years, 10+ years.

Imagine the typical max player. He was a first-round pick, so his rookie-scale deal covers his first four seasons. He might sign a five-year max contract extension or max deal as a restricted free agent — which gets him to unrestricted free agency with nine years of experience. If he locks into a long-term deal that summer, he’s stuck with the 7-9 max. Wait one more year, and he can get the 10+ rate.

With both factors — the skyrocketing salary cap and tier system — working together, players are more incentivized than ever to take 1+1 deals.

That won’t remain the case, though.

The salary cap will level off as the new national TV contracts become the norm. There will still be free agents with nine years of experience who could wait one more season to lock in long-term, but that had long been the case, and nobody took a 1+1. LeBron and Durant are as likely to be outliers as trendsetters.

But if other players follow their lead, that’s not so bad. If players sign a new contract annually or even biannually, they’re more likely to be paid in accordance with their production. That’s something owners want.

Owners also want to keep their top players, and 1+1 deals allow for greater player movement. So, I see the downside for teams.

The “solution” would be mandating unguaranteed contracts — players tied to their teams long-term while the team still has the ability to drop the player if he’s not living up to his salary. Of course, that’s almost certainly a non-starter for the union.

In a world of compromise, the current system isn’t as harmful as Silver insinuates.

 

Jeremy Lin stars in Space Jam 3 (video)

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LeBron James will reportedly star in Space Jam 2.

Space Jam 3? Jeremy Lin already claimed the top role in a very, um, strange video.