Wesley Matthews is going to get paid by somebody, but will it be the Jazz?

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Life’s not all that easy for undrafted players in the NBA, who typically have to fight and claw just to find a place on a roster. That wasn’t the case for Wesley Matthews, who was fortunate enough to be signed by the Jazz after spending four years playing for Marquette. It didn’t take a trip to the D-League or a tour through Europe for Matthews to stay NBA relevant after failing to be selected in the draft, and for that he should definitely be considered fortunate.

Then, injuries to several of Utah’s wing players opened up playing time and shot attempts for Matthews, who was able to average almost 25 minutes in 48 games. Plus, the cost-conscious Jazz shipped out Ronnie Brewer, who almost certainly would have stolen away Matthews’ minutes, to the Memphis Grizzlies for purely financial reasons. As far as undrafted rookies go, Matthews has received just about every break he could possibly ask for, and he’s made the most of the opportunities he’s been given.

Now the Jazz will have to pay for it.

The perk of being a second round pick or undrafted rookie is that the rookie scale doesn’t apply, meaning that if a player like Matthews can make a decent splash in a season or two, they can reach their first notable payday that much sooner. That should be the case with Wesley this summer, as he proved he’s a capable rotation player with the Jazz this season. There’s no star power here, just a competent defender and low-usage scorer. No one should have to break open the piggy bank to sign Matthews to a new deal, but he’s definitely due for a raise from his sub-$1 million salary this season.

The only question is whether or not he’ll stay with Utah. The system fits well with Matthews’ talents, and it’s clear that Jerry Sloan is a fan. That said, the Jazz will have a number of decisions to make this off-season regarding a number of free agents, both in-house and elsewhere. From Ross Siler of the Salt Lake Tribune:

The Jazz’s best chance for an impact addition might come with the first-round pick they own from New York. The draft lottery will be held May 18, but if the draft order holds, the Jazz would be left with the No. 9 pick.

…As for their current roster, the Jazz have seven players under contract to return next season in Williams, Okur, Paul Millsap, Andrei Kirilenko, C.J. Miles, Ronnie Price and Kosta Koufos. Those seven players are set to make $56.7 million for the 2010-11 season.

The NBA’s latest projections call for next season’s luxury-tax threshold to be set at $68 million. Assuming they end up with the No. 9 pick, the Jazz’s newest rookie would be expected to make $2.4 million next season.

That would leave the Jazz about $9 million to spend in deciding about re-signing free agents Boozer, Wesley Matthews, Kyle Korver and Kyrylo Fesenko without pushing their payroll into luxury-tax territory for the second consecutive season.

Let’s assume that Boozer has his bags packed and sits anxiously on the curb waiting for his taxi. As Siler noted, $9 million will be the magic number for the Jazz this off-season, and they’ll have to divide that salary up amongst Matthews, Korver, Fesenko, and any other free agents they’re targeting. That’s not much coin to fill Boozer’s void while retaining those players, who were all part of Utah’s rotation at various points in the season.

Fesenko may not be a stud, but he was decent for the Jazz in the playoffs and could provide a cheap insurance policy should Mehmet Okur’s recovery take longer than anticipated. Korver does have some value for Utah, though he definitely qualifies as a specialist and holds limited value aside from his shooting.

Where things should get particularly interesting is in where the Jazz end up in the draft lottery. Should Utah move up thanks to the favorable bounces of a few ping pong balls, that $9 million figure would actually decrease as the set price of their first round pick goes up. That lottery pick’s salary bump could ironically be the factor that pushes Matthews out of the mix. Utah has been trying to dodge the luxury tax like the plague, and should Wesley’s new contract not fit neatly into their salary space under the tax line, he may hit the open market.

The other factor is how confident the Jazz are in Paul Millsap’s ability to replace Carlos Boozer’s production. If Sloan and Kevin O’Connor don’t have complete faith in Millsap, they could look to replace some of Boozer’s scoring and rebounding with another big in free agency. That would leave even less available salary (or maybe none at all) for Korver, Fesenko, and Matthews.

There’s no doom and gloom here; someone is going to sign Wesley Matthews this summer, and maybe it will be Utah. The odds just seem slim that he’ll stay in SLC, and soon Matthews may join Eric Maynor and Ronnie Brewer as the Jazz turned ex-Jazz thanks to Greg Miller and the Miller family’s aversion to the luxury tax.

LeBron James locked in for Cavaliers-Celtics Game 4 after being locked out in Game 3

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — LeBron James had that look – faraway, yet focused.

The Boston Celtics have his undivided attention.

Following one of the worst postseason games of his career, James provided a candid review of his performance after breaking down film of Game 3 in the Eastern Conference finals.

“It wasn’t tough to watch,” he said as the Cavaliers prepared for Tuesday night’s Game 4. “We had opportunities. It is what it is. They played a hell of a game and they took it to us and we weren’t able to stop the runs that they made.

“Some of the plays that we made, some of the plays that I made, I was like, `What are we doing?’ or `What could I have done better?’ But you figure out the next game and go forward.”

James scored just 11 points and committed six turnovers in Game 2 on Sunday night, when the Celtics overcame a 21-point deficit in the third quarter to pull off an upset the odds makers in Las Vegas said was the biggest in the NBA playoffs over the past 20 years.

It was the fourth-lowest point total for James in 210 career playoff games. The point total was stunning considering it broke James’ streak of scoring at least 30 points in eight straight playoff games. It was the first time in 11 games in this postseason in which he scored fewer than 25.

Typically, James bounces back following poor games.

“It’s fun to watch knowing that when he has bad nights, a lot of times some very, very, very good nights follow,” said Cavs forward James Jones, who has been James’ teammate the past seven years. “It’s what he does.”

James went just 4 of 13 from the field in Game 3. More unusual was that he didn’t attack the basket with his customary tenacity.

And while James was criticized in some circles for not doing more, Celtics coach Brad Stevens was understandably cautious in his analysis.

His team is back in the series after being blown out in Games 1 and 2 at home, and Stevens probably didn’t want to rankle James.

“I thought LeBron made a lot of the right plays,” he said. “When you’ve got guys that are all on fire the way they are, the right basketball play is to find them. He just made it over and over. The guy is a tremendous basketball player. He makes the right play over and over, and he thinks the game, he sees the game. He’s a really good defender. He can read situations. So I thought he was pretty darned good. I’m not going to be critical of the best player in the world.”

James, who didn’t speak to the media Monday, didn’t provide many detailed answers during a brief interview session at the team’s practice facility.

Asked for the keys to Game 4, he simply said “win” and walked away.

Report: Magic hiring Bucks GM John Hammond to serve under Jeff Weltman

AP Photo/Morry Gash
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Bucks general manager John Hammond interviewed to run the Magic’s front office – a job that ultimately went to Raptors general manager Jeff Weltman.

But there’s still room for Hammond in Orlando.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

Why would Hammond leave Milwaukee, where he held the highest title in the front office for the No. 2 job in Orlando? The Bucks seemed ready to part ways for a while. Coach Jason Kidd assumed plenty of player-personnel control, and Milwaukee hired Justin Zanik to work under and eventually succeed Hammond.

Hammond’s move elevates Zanik now with the Bucks. We’ll see whether he or Kidd actually steers the ship.

Hammond had Kidd thrust upon him in Milwaukee due to the coach’s closeness with Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry. Considering he worked with Weltman in Detroit and Milwaukee, Hammond should have better working relationships in Orlando.

Under Hammond, the Bucks have built a nice young core featuring Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, Khris Middleton, Greg Monroe, Tony Snell, Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker. Hammond probably deserves more credit for that, but Milwaukee’s loss is the Magic’s gain. At least Zanik is qualified to step up.

Now, Orlando must hope Hammond can help turn around its underwhelming roster.

Kawhi Leonard injury an all-time "what if?"

AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
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Eight days ago, we didn’t know whether Kawhi Leonard – who injured his ankle when Zaza Pachulia slid under his jumper – would play again this postseason.

But as a frustrated Gregg Popovich ranted about Pachulia’s dirtiness, I suspect the Spurs coach knew. I think Popovich knew, after years of anticipating a playoff matchup with the high-octane Warriors, Leonard’s injury had robbed San Antonio of a competitive conference finals – and maybe a championship.

The Spurs led Game 1 by 23 when Leonard got hurt. He never returned, and San Antonio blew its opening-game lead then lost Games 2-4 by 36, 12 and 14. None of the final three games were competitive down the stretch.

In all, the Spurs outscored Golden State by 21 in Leonard’s 23 minutes and got outscored by 85 otherwise.

The Warriors advance to their third straight NBA Finals. San Antonio is left wondering, what if?

Popovich’s Spurs have beaten nearly every highly touted team to come along during his reign as coach – the Chris Webber/Vlade Divac/Mike Bibby/Peja Stojakovic Kings, Shaquille O’Neal/Kobe Bryant Lakers, Goin’ To Work Pistons, Steve Nash/Mike D’Antoni Suns, LeBron James Cavaliers, Dirk Nowitzki Mavericks, Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook Thunder, LeBron/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh Heat.

But these Warriors escaped San Antonio. The Spurs beat Golden State in the 2013 second round, but that wasn’t the same team. Those Warriors hadn’t started Draymond Green, signed Andre Iguodala or hired Steve Kerr – three people integral to Golden State’s identity. And of course, the Warriors hadn’t signed Kevin Durant, who turned this year’s squad into possible the greatest super team of all time.

At the same time, San Antonio was loading up. The Spurs were the second-best regular-season team over the last three years behind Golden State, but the teams didn’t meet in the playoffs.

Despite having the NBA’s third-best net rating, San Antonio had to face the Clippers (NBA’s second-best net rating) in the 2015 first round thanks to conference imbalance and a since-changed seeding system for division winners. The Clippers won a hard-fought seven-game series.

In 2016, the Spurs had an even higher net rating than Golden State, which went 73-9. But they ran into the Thunder, whose athleticism buzz-sawed them and nearly toppled the Warriors.

This year was San Antonio’s chance.

The Spurs showed an ability to adjust to spread attacks while topping the Rockets in the second round. In its next-level challenge, San Antonio – behind Leonard’s 26 points on 13 shots, eight rebounds and three assists – dominated early.

But as soon as Leonard went down, the entire series turned.

The Spurs outscored Golden State by 42 points per 48 minutes with Leonard and got outscored by 24 points per 48 minutes without him – one of the greatest disparities in a playoff series this era.

Here are all the series where a team performed at least 60 points better per 48 minutes with a certain player on the court rather than off since 2001, which is as far back as Basketball-Reference records go (requiring more than 10 minutes played, as to eliminate extreme garbage-time examples):

  • Left: Point difference per 48 minutes with player off
  • Right: Left: Point difference per 48 minutes with player on
  • Center: Difference

image

Raw totals:

Player On Off
Chauncey Billups (2002 MIN 0, DAL 3) 0 in 134 min. -32 in 10 min.
Draymond Green (2015 GSW 4, NOP 0) +77 in 166 min. -45 in 31 min.
Gilbert Arenas (2005 WAS 4, CHI 2) +31 in 276 min. -20 in 12 min.
Pascal Siakam (2017 TOR 0, CLE 4) +14 in 10 min. -75 in 182 min.
Kobe Bryant (2001 LAL 3, POR 0) +66 in 119 min. -22 in 26 min.
Kevin Garnett (2004 MIN 4, DEN 1) +58 in 206 min. -38 in 34 min.
Luke Jackson (2007 TOR 2, BRK 4) +14 in 11 min. -46 in 277 min.
LeBron James (2007 CLE 4, WAS 0) +47 in 182 min. -12 in 11 min.
Allen Iverson (2001 PHI 1, LAL 4) -25 in 239 min. -9 in 6 min.
Kawhi Leonard (2017 SAS 0, GSW 4) +21 in 24 min. -85 in 168 min.
Shawn Marion (2003 PHO 2, SAS 4) -17 in 283 min. -15 in 10 min.
Tariq Abdul-Wahad (2003 DAL 2, SAS 4) +19 in 16 min. -49 in 272 min.
Russell Westbrook (2017 OKC 1, HOU 4) +15 in 195 min. -58 in 46 min.
Shaquille O’Neal (2001 LAL 3, POR 0) +55 in 131 min. -11 in 13 min.
Chris Webber (2001 SAC 3, PHO 1) +59 in 169 min. -21 in 23 min.
Tim Duncan (2001 SAS 4, DAL 1) +89 in 202 min. -31 in 38 min.
Kirk Hinrich (2016 ATL 0, CLE 4) +11 in 12 min. -61 in 180 min.
Thomas Gardner (2009 ATL 0, CLE 4) +12 in 16 min. -84 in 177 min.

This list is essentially divided into three groups:

  • Bench-warmers who played a few good minutes while their team got torched throughout the series. Pascal Siakam, Luke Jackson, Tariq Abdul-Wahad, Kirk Hinrich and Thomas Gardner fit this category.
  • Stars who dominated while on the court and saw their teams torched when they sat. For example, in the massive leader in this stat, the Timberwolves played the Mavericks even in the 2002 first round with Chauncey Billups on the court. But Minnesota got outscored by 32 in the 10 minutes Billups sat the entire series and got swept. (Billups was starting for an injured Terrell Brandon, so Robert Pack got pressed into duty behind Billups.)
  • Kawhi Leonard. Every other star played a high majority of his teams’ minutes, essentially as much as he could handle. Then, his team just hoped to hang on in the star’s brief breathers. Leonard was stuck on the bench nearly the entire series, watching the the Spurs look helpless after he led them to a commanding advantage.

To be fair, San Antonio wouldn’t have necessarily won with Leonard.

Golden State was better than the Spurs throughout the season, and the lopsided start was a small sample. Simple regression to the mean could have tilted the series.

Also, the Warriors are at their best with Draymond Green at center, and they used that lineup just 11 seconds before Leonard’s injury. In 59 minutes with Green at center in the series, Golden State posted offensive/defensive/net ratings of 123.9/90.3/+33.5. If they needed to lean on those lineups more to beat a Leonard-led Spurs, they could have.

Yet, I can’t stop wondering what would have happened if Leonard stayed healthy.

The question towers over the last great playoff-injury fascination – whether the Cavaliers would have won the 2015 Finals if Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were healthy.

I contend no. The Warriors were better than Cleveland overall each of the last two years, and they were a stylistic problem for the Cavs – especially Love and especially in 2015. The Cavaliers winning in 2016 adds doubt, but Stephen Curry was hobbled and Draymond Green got suspended for a game. A hungrier and more available 2015 Golden State team was more primed to win than the 2016 edition that lost to Cleveland.

Perhaps, a 2017 Finals rubber match will inform my opinion how Love’s and Irving’s injuries affected the 2015 NBA championship. For now, I’m sticking with the Warriors winning anyway.

But with Leonard’s injury in this year’s conference finals, I just don’t have a feel for whether the Spurs would have prevailed.

And that’s the most frustrating part.

Kevin Durant apologizes for telling fans ‘If you don’t like it, don’t watch it,’ reiterates stance

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Kevin Durant told fans, dismayed by the lack of competitive games and series this postseason, “If you don’t like it, don’t watch it.”

Daring customers to choose another form of entertainment might not be good business for the NBA, but it’s not as if many fans needed an invitation. I doubt anyone was on the fence about watching then made up their minds after hearing Durant’s comments.

Yet, the Warriors star offered an apology.

Durant, via Chris Haynes of ESPN:

“I mean, life can be simple, man, Durant told ESPN. “If you don’t like the way the game is going, just turn it off. If you’re enjoying it, just keep it on. Life is simple. I didn’t mean it to disrespect anybody, but if you felt disrespected, I’m sorry. But if you don’t enjoy the game, turn it off [and] turn something else on. If you do, enjoy the rest of it, man.”

This is just a softer touch on the same sentiment – and just as reasonable.

People who love the NBA will watch. People who hate the NBA won’t. And people in the middle will fluctuate depending on the quality of the product.

Anyone mad at Durant the first time was just looking for a reason to get upset. That group will probably find a source of irritation in the follow-up quote, too.

The rest of us didn’t need this (half-hearted) apology, anyway.