The Saturday Starting Five: Your Season Assured

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Hey, so, you’re stuck with me on the weekends, so I thought we’d put together something you can count on. Every weekend here at PBT we’ll have the Saturday Starting Five. Five elements, chosen thematically (so I’m not just basically vomiting words onto a screen for you) and brought for discussion about the NBA. Our opening topic?

Five things you can count on in the NBA this and every year (except next year when we’re locked out because that’s totally going to happen.).

#1: At least two teams are going to completely exceed all expectations.

Startling, I know, but in a league as dead-set predictable as the NBA, this is actually worth mentioning. Last season the Bobcats were considered by many to be one of, if not the worst teams in the league. This despite Larry Brown’s penchant for overachieving with lesser parts. Granted, pundits couldn’t see the addition of Stephen Jackson coming down the pipeline, but the fact is that last year, just like this year, the Bobcatss were slated to be terrible. Now the Cats might actually be terrible, but it’s still good when you’re rolling down those teams and dismissing them to stop and ask “Are they actually that terrible?” Because when spring rolls around and that team’s in a playoff race, it’s going to seem so obvious that they’d be good.

Oh, and a side note, every columnist, pundit, and blogger is praying that the team they think is terrible won’t be the one to exceed expectations. I personally am dreading if Darko Milicic is actually a viable center, Kurt Rambis actually plays Kevin Love and Wesley Johnson is any good. I’m going to look dumb. Like, really dumb. Exceptionally stupid. Worlds O’ Dumb.

#2: One team’s going to bottom into nothingness.

Perhaps you don’t remember this, but the Nets weren’t supposed to be that bad last season. No kidding. They weren’t going to be title contenders, or anything, but a nice reasonable near-.500 record was expected. Instead, they just lost and lost and lost. I watched several of those games early on, including the Miami buzzer beater loss. And you could just feel that cloud descend over them. It would follow them for almost the entire season.

Think last season was an outlier? Chicago went from an Eastern Conference favorite to giving Scott Skiles a pink slip on Christmas. This happens. Consistently. And there’s almost no way to see it coming.

It’s going to happen to a team we don’t suspect. Minnesota should have been the worst team in the league last year. It took an extraordinary plummet by the Nets for them to be second worst. And that may happen again this year. There’s no real way you can see it coming, either. Heck, it could be the Heat. That’s how tentative this league is. (It will not be the Heat.) So keep that in mind while you’re talking up how your team could make the playoffs.

#3 A mid-teen drafted rookie will blow us away.

10. Paul George
11. Cole Aldrich
12. Xavier Henry
13. Ed Davis
14. Patrick Patterson
15. Larry Sanders
16. Luke Babbitt
17. Kevin Seraphin
18. Eric Bledsoe
19. Avery Bradley
20. James Anderson

One of those guys is going to be much better than we expect. It may be one of the guys 20-plus, like Darren Collison last year, though Ty Lawson qualifies. One of these guys will be better than we expect, much better. It’s only natural. There are so many misses in the top 10 usually, that someone’s going to slip, and when you slip, you can slip by handfuls. Of those options, it’s hard to identify the easy one. But then, each year it’s hard to identify. My money’s on either Patrick Patterson or Larry Sanders, but wouldn’t it be ridiculous if the Celtics landed themselves another great point guard? Or if Cole Aldrich was, actually, you know, good?

Just be prepared for one of these guys to make a huge jump.

#4 At least one coach is cashing one of his final paychecks.

My favorite fired coach story of the past few years was Scott Skiles. The Bulls fired him on Christmas Eve. Think about that. Oh, hey, it’s the holiday season. A season of love and peace. Hey, Scott, we got you a present! It’s the curb! It’s all yours! And we got you this boot to get you there! I mean, seriously. Who does that? The answer is “probably the same people who get into a shoving match with a coach who they later lame duck for about six months after they shouldn’t have hired him in the first place anyway.”

The point is, before the calendar hits 2011, we’re going to see a coach released back into the wild. Sometimes it’s a long time coming, sometimes it’s a reactionary move that speaks to the front office’s short leash. Jay Triano is one that comes to mind, if the team once again comes out with a terrible defensive rating. Whoever suffers element #2 above is also a strong candidate.

It’s sad that we know someone’s going to lose their job this far in advance, but we do. This is the NBA. It has benchmarks like every other league. And Christmas is the time for coaches to exit, stage right.

#5 An MVP candidate will come out of nowhere.

Carmelo Anthony really did have a strong case for the first two months of the year last year. Then Amar’e Stoudemire made a really strong case towards the end of last year. Those are two more predictable candidates, but they’re still outside of the Big 4 (LeBron, Kobe, Wade, Dwight). With two candidates (sorry Chris) on the same team, there are more spots open (with one already awarded to Kevin Durant automatically).

It’s one of the best parts of the season, a player making a huge leap that suddenly makes you wonder if he’s the best. For all the disappointing injuries, suspensions, team turmoil, and this season, CBA talks, there are bright spots, and watching players make leaps to elite status is one of them. I for one, am ready for it. 24 Days, kiddos.

24 days.

Cleveland GM David Griffin: “I hope everybody says we have no chance”

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The Golden State Warriors are heavy favorites to win the NBA title. According to bovda.lv, bet $100 on the Warriors to win the title and you get $41.7 dollars. Bet $100 on the Cavaliers and you get $200. And that number is likely to get worse for Warriors fans.

The Cavaliers are okay with that. They like being the underdogs. Look at what GM David Griffin said in a televised interview after they eliminated the Celtics in Game 5, via Cleveland.com.

“I hope everybody says we have no chance,” General Manager David Griffin said during a TV interview following the Cavaliers’ 135-102 win Thursday night against the Boston Celtics, clinching a third straight NBA Finals appearance.

“Obviously the team we’re playing is as good as you can possibly put together, it’s going to be an unbelievable battle for us, but I think [the Cavs] love battling together. The greater the odds, the better we seem to play together. We really do rally around each other in that sense.”

There is some truth to that.

There’s also a difference between that truth and slowing Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. How the Cavaliers are going to do that will be the interesting part of these playoffs.

Detroit’s Van Gundy honored for cooperation with media, fans

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) — Stan Van Gundy of the Detroit Pistons has won the Rudy Tomjanovich Award, which honors an NBA coach for his cooperation with media and fans, as well as excellence on the court.

The Professional Basketball Writers Association announced the winner Friday. Van Gundy was one of five finalists for the award. The others were Steve Clifford of the Charlotte Hornets, Mike D’Antoni of the Houston Rockets, David Fizdale of the Memphis Grizzlies and Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics.

Dwane Casey of the Toronto Raptors won the award last season.

No surprise: It’s Cavs-Warriors in the NBA Finals, again

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OAKLAND (AP) — Here they go again.

For the third straight year, it’s Cleveland and Golden State in the NBA Finals. The 2016 champions versus the 2015 champions . The first “threematch” – rematch of a rematch – in league history. It’s the matchup most expected, the matchup most predicted, and probably the matchup the Cavaliers and Warriors wanted as well.

Let the hype, and the waiting, begin: Game 1 isn’t until June 1.

“I’ve been very blessed the last few years to be a part of this league and play on the big stage,” said Cleveland star LeBron James, who has now reached the Finals for the eighth time – including each of the last seven years. “But we’re going to enjoy this for a couple more days before we have to lock in on that juggernaut out west.”

The Cavaliers and Warriors split their two meetings this season, both winning at home. Cleveland won by one on Christmas Day, Golden State prevailed by 35 on Jan. 16.

Golden State led the league with 67 wins this season and is a staggering 27-1 in its last 28 games – including a perfect 12-0 in the Western Conference playoffs, the first time a team has gone this deep into an NBA postseason without losing. Cleveland, which seemed sleepy at times in the regular season, went 12-1 in the Eastern Conference playoffs that ended with a win over Boston on Thursday night.

“Playing in this league, you can’t take anything for granted,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said. “Thirty teams suit up every year trying to get to this point, and only two teams do. So you have to appreciate it. … We need to understand the privilege that we have and the opportunity that we have to play in the Finals again, to have the opportunity to win a championship.”

Already, the back-and-forth is underway.

Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue was quoted earlier this week saying he thought Boston’s offense was “harder to defend” than Golden State’s. Countered Golden State acting coach Mike Brown, when asked about it Thursday: “That’s his opinion. It’s cute.”

And there will be reminders of the Halloween party that James threw for the Cavaliers last fall, with “3-1 Lead” – a nod to what the Warriors lost in last year’s Finals – prominently displayed on the drum set.

Much more of that sort of that will likely follow over the next week, filling time before Golden State plays host to Game 1. But there’s also a clear respect level between the clubs as well.

“The best team in our league the last three years,” James said of the Warriors. “And they’ve added an unbelievable player in Kevin Durant this year. So it makes it even more difficult. They’re going to challenge us a lot, offensively, defensively, mentally, physically. We have to be ready for the challenge.”

For James, the Finals are an annual rite.

For Durant, this trip ends a five-year wait.

Durant’s only other time in the Finals was 2012 when he was with Oklahoma City. The Thunder lost to Miami in five games, a series that made James a champion for the first time.

At the very moment where the clock ran out in that series, the person James was embracing was Durant – telling the then-Thunder star, his offseason workout partner at the time, how proud of him he was.

“Hopefully,” James said that night, “I don’t continue to have to run into him.”

They’ll collide again, starting next week.

Durant’s decision to leave the Thunder for Golden State as a free agent last summer meant the Warriors went from mere overwhelming favorites to win the West again to super-duper-overwhelming favorites to win the West again. They got a big scare in late February when Durant had a left knee injury, but he’s back and the Warriors have rolled since.

“It’s a little different, definitely. I can’t lie,” Durant said, when comparing the 2012 Finals trip to this one. “I went when I was 23 years old, and it felt like the Western Conference Finals was almost like the championship. Just getting to that point, you know how hard it is and how much work you put in to start the season. So it’s a little different now, obviously. We have a bigger goal in mind.”

The storylines are many. Can James win his fourth ring? Can Durant win his first? Will the Warriors be haunted by letting last season’s 3-1 lead slip away? Will they become the first team in NBA history to go undefeated in a postseason? How will Golden State guard Kyrie Irving? How will Cleveland try to contain Curry?

There’s also the irony that Brown, the first coach who took James to an NBA Finals in 2007 – Cleveland was swept by San Antonio – will now coach against him, likely in the same leading role he’s had for Golden State since head coach Steve Kerr was forced to take a break because of continued problems with his surgically repaired back.

“I don’t care who you’re playing, to make it to the NBA Finals, to win your conference finals, it’s a big task,” Brown said.

The biggest task awaits.

Isaiah Thomas wants Celtics to sign free agents, reportedly they are not looking to trade him (yet)

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The Boston Celtics made a huge leap forward this season: They got the No. 1 seed in the East and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. For a team on the rise, that’s impressive.

However, as soon as they landed the No. 1 pick in this draft, a big question started to bubble up:

What is the future of Isaiah Thomas with this team? Which is a strange thing to say about a guy who averaged 28.9 points per game and was All-NBA this season, but here we are.

First, the Celtics are not looking to trade IT this summer as some have suggested, reports Sean Deveny of the Sporting News.

That starts with All-Star Isaiah Thomas, whose name has lately been the subject of trade speculation. But league sources indicate that any talk of dealing Thomas is strictly speculation at this point — the Celtics have had no such discussions. Not yet, at least.

The challenge for the Celtics seems to be this: If they draft Markelle Fultz No. 1 (as is expected by everyone around the league), then what is the future for Thomas? Do you want to pay Thomas max money just as he turns 29 when you have a stud young point guard coming up behind him?

That led to talk of extending Thomas this summer with the team’s cap space (which assumes they do not sign Gordon Hayward). Except Thomas would rather the money be spent on free agents than himself, as he told Chris Forsberg of ESPN.

“We need the best possible player that’s gonna help us win, and I’m with that,” said Thomas. “Anything Danny and this organization need me to do to help bring even more talent to this city, I’m all for that. I want to win a championship and being so close to getting to the Finals, that makes you want it that much more.

“I’m all help if they need it. I’ll be around.”

Nothing is certain in the NBA, but here is the most likely outcome of the Isaiah Thomas situation: They keep him, they draft Markelle Fultz, they do not extend Thomas (whether they land Hayward or not), and they see how it all fits together for a season. Then they make a decision on Thomas in the summer of 2018. The bottom line is he may well have more value to the Celtics than another team, and while he’s certainly getting a raise from the $6.3 million, he will make next season he may fall short of the max, and in a zone where the Celtics are willing to keep him.

In pure basketball terms, the Celtics may be hesitant to spend on Thomas, but he is also the most popular player on the team by a mile. Letting him go is not that simple.

There are a lot of questions to be answered between now and next summer when it comes to IT.