Last Weekend of Hope: Eastern Conference

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On Tuesday the 2010-2011 NBA season begins. From that point on, the reality will be set for 30 teams in the NBA. One team will wind up in possession of the trophy which defines careers, while 29 others will find themselves deeply disappointed in themselves, their teammates, their organization, or all three. The fans, likewise, will go through a similar process of understanding exactly how good their respective teams are, and are not. For most, it is a bitter, sobering process, tinged with those moments of fleeting success wherein they take comfort in the overtime, come-from-behind win, or the outright smackdown of a top team. You’ll hear a lot of “They are what they are.” But right now? This weekend? These precious, painful few days? These teams could be anything. They could far surpass expectations, and bring outright exuberance to their fans, players, and the people that work behind the scenes to make them great. They could shock the world, even if that means a second round playoff exit in a sweep. This is the last weekend of hope before the journey begins. And while that journey is fun, and it’s why we watch, this moment should be documented, particularly because this may be the last hopeful weekend we have in a while, as the specter of imminent lockout looms over us like a raven, just waiting for the season to die.

In that uplifting, comforting spirit, here then, is the hope of the Eastern Conference.

(Note: Do not confuse the hope enlisted with the opinions of the author. We’re just conveying what appears to be the best-case outlook for the various squads.)

Atlanta Hawks: They were supposed to be a joke three years ago. Then they pushed the Celtics to seven games. They were supposed to be an after-though the following year, when they advanced to the second round. They were supposed to regress last year, when they nabbed the third seed and swept the Celtics in the regular season. Who’s to say they can’t stun the NBA again? All they’ve done is improve. And for as much as everyone, and I mean everyone, outside of the Johnson family clan and Rick Sund, think that Joe Johnson is overpaid, what if instead of taking a step back, he advances and becomes a more efficient, complete player? Josh Smith cut out the threes last year and made his game more complete. What if that only advances and somehow, mercifully, that mid-range J comes to light? And what if their chemistry, which was palpable last year, only comes together. If any franchise deserved a reward for slowly building upon a core, it’s not OKC or Portland, it’s Atlanta. Maybe injury and age could set them up for an improbable run.

Boston Celtics: 12 minutes. That’s how close they were. Sure, the age is another year gone. Sure, their starting center is on the shelf for a long time and their backups would be mega-stars in 2003. But 12 minutes, they got deeper, and they were so close. This concoction of stars has only had one championship to show for what could have been another dynasty. They’ve got another one in them. They have to. They’ve got too much pride, too much desire. They understand that this is 18, the chance to put the Lakers back where they feel the Lakers belong. Behind them. Rondo’s an even better player, a fourth star, really. Allen’s jumper isn’t going to change. Garnett’s intensity won’t change. Paul Pierce’s elbow-J won’t change. And for all the injury talk, there have been older teams who stayed healthy. For this team, this franchise, this legacy, it’s got to be possible.

Charlotte Bobcats: They don’t have a point guard. They don’t have a center (although Nazr Mohammed is criminally underrated). How are they going to compete? Perhaps the same way they’ve competed over the past three years with Larry Brown. By trades. Brown has gone into every November with a glaring weakness and each year has addressed it with trades. First it was versatility and overall talent. Then it was defensive acumen. Then it was a scoring threat. All three times, Brown managed to upgrade his team and their record. So a trade, then. A move to improve things without losing the soul of this team which is strong. They say defense wins championships, and this team has it in spades. Perhaps a championship is out of reach, but being the toughest bunch of SOB’s and getting a first round home playoff series is not. In Brown, they trust. In MJ, they hope.

Chicago Bulls: Take what’s good, seal up the holes, capitalize on opportunities. They’ve done what they needed. They needed a low-post scorer, they got a premier talent in Carlos Boozer. Sure, he’s out for two months, but this team has won half their games with far less talent. Meanwhile they have a coach they can believe in, the star who seems poised to take his place among the elite, and the franchise center for the long-haul. The Heat have no depth. The Celtics have almost no youth. The Magic… well, the Magic play in Orlando. That’s not a championship town. Chicago’s a championship town. Right? So with a complete team and two superstars, there’s no reason this team can’t put together a season to shut down the hype in Miami and Boston. All it takes is Rose-colored-glasses. Okay, that and the ability to hit a freaking jump shot.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Screw ’em. Screw the media, screw the experts, screw the Heat, and especially, screw LeBron. This team won 60 games the past two seasons. One guy can not, did not, will not make that big of a difference. This locker room still likes one another, and still has talent. J.J. Hickson is just waiting for his chance. Mo Williams was an All-Star. Ramon Sessions has never been given a shot like he has in Cleveland. And if any team, any city, anywhere, deserved a chance at redemption in the face of adversity, it is this team, in this town, in this season. A championship? Nearly impossible. But beating the Heat in the playoffs? Now that’s something worth witnessing.

Detroit Pistons: This is not an old team. It’s a young team, built with players in their prime and with a lot of depth. Young talent, mixed with veteran skill. So… there is simply no way that the injuries of last year repeat. There is no way the disconnect happens. And there’s no way Joe Dumars, after constructing such a brilliant five-year run, could have fallen this far. Villanueva could start to get it, and Ben Gordon didn’t just suddenly lose his jumper. He didn’t leave it in his other warm-up pants. Hamilton can be moved for a better set of assets. Prince, the same. The rookies look solid-to-good. We’re not talking about the must-win-50 Western Conference here. We’re talking the swiss cheese East. Is there a position outside of power forward that the Knicks are certifiably better at? Just don’t let everything go wrong, and there’s a good chance this team bounces back.

Indiana Pacers: In Collison we trust. The team has a point guard, a star to build around besides Granger. Granger won’t have to do it all this season. Huge big-bodied center: check. Versatile forward with scoring ability: check. Distributing lightning fast young point guard: check. The rest is just pieces, and they’ve stockpiled enough talent to do so. Plus, look at all those expiring contracts they can move at the deadline. There’s no way this team fails to get it together this year. Improvement is simply winning as many games as they lose. That’s decent, that’s playoffs, that’s a reachable goal. That is not too much to hope for.

Miami Heat: Everything clicks. The chemistry works. The team stays healthy. Talent prevails. A. Ring.

Milwaukee Bucks: We’re not talking some repeated leg injury. He doesn’t have bad knees. A bad back, kind of. But even that’s been okay. The fall Andrew Bogut took was a freak accident. Greg Oden’s shattered patella was way more predictable and they call that a freak injury. So there’s no reason to think Bogut won’t stay healthy this year, once he gets healthy. And this team would have beaten the Hawks last year if he was healthy. They have the fans, the point guard, the versatility, the coach, the defense, and they added shooters and rebounders out the wazoo. This team has been constructed for the long haul and has stars. Homecourt advantage in the first round nearly guarantees a second round appearance. And once there, there isn’t a single team that wants to get the antlers. Ride the wave, fear the deer.

New Jersey Nets: Things cannot go as badly as they did last year. It’s simply not possible. Too many things went wrong, in succession. They have more depth now. They got rid of the contracts they were holding for last summer. Sure, they didn’t get the superstar. But that doesn’t mean they can’t add one. And Favors could be great. They have a passionate, proven coach who says Favors could be like Tim Duncan. Maybe that’s a stretch, especially this year, but they’ve got time. And somewhere, Masai Ujiri knows that he’s got to make a deal. All Jersey has to do is stay patient and maybe win a few games. They have to win a few. Things can’t be as bad as last year.

New York Knicks: Finally. There is a team worth the Garden taking the floor. A true superstar in Amar’e Stoudemire, in culture, name, and power. No Steve Nash? Was Nash getting those mid-range Js, the post hooks, the putback dunks? I don’t think so. Randolph is the kind of star the fans can get excited about, even as he’s never shown a ray of light. Turiaf’s a hard working son of a gun, and Mozgov looks tremendous, the kind of hidden star only D’Antoni and Walsh can find. Look, this team has been unwatchable year after year after year after year. Those days are over. They are not brilliant. They are not contenders. But they will be fun. And this is New York. Players want to play here. Specifically, your players on those other teams want to play here. It’s just a matter of time. The Knicks are back, even if that’s just in the conversation. They can’t miss.

Orlando Magic: Does your team have the most dominant center in basketball? No. Your team does not have a team-centric defensive system that feeds off rebounds, coverage, spacing, and discipline. Your team does not have what is probably the third best coach in the NBA. Your team does not have shooters that can shoot, ball-handlers who can pick and roll, and a guy who’s simply bigger than everyone else. So your doubts are unfounded. This team isn’t just a contender. It should be a favorite. It’s okay, don’t believe us. Just also don’t be surprised if we win the East, then the whole freaking thing in a few months. Boston can’t stave off Father Time forever.

Philadelphia 76ers: Sure there are questions. But if things go right, this is a playoff team. After all, most of the same core made the playoffs in consecutive years two years ago. Iguodala looks like a different player after the summer overseas. Jrue Holiday is the truth, forget the preseason (and regular season last year, and most evidence). Turner looks rusty, but he’s got worlds of time and Iguodala to take the pressure off. Elton Brand lost all that weight. It’s not outside the realm of possibility for him to put together a good season. A championship is not what they’re looking for. But they also now have Rod Thorn, who will want a superstar and has the pieces to acquire one. Just watch.

Toronto Raptors: Amir Johnson will save us all. As he has so many other teams before. As long as BC benches Bargnani, because he is the worst. Amir and Reggie Evans can score the 17.7 points per 36 Bargnani scores, in their sleep.

Other than that, there’s a trade exception that BC can get us, if he doesn’t acquire some stupid Euro player with talent, whatever that is. We need defense. But maybe Amir, Reggie, Jack, and Kleiza and do enough. If the team can just defend even a little bit, they could get better. Although most of the fan base agrees, the best case scenario is for them to tank so Bryan Colangelo is fired and Bargnani is traded for a hard-nose defender. But it’s not Jay Triano’s fault. He can stay. Hopefully something, anything changes.

Washington Wizards: John Wall. The End.

 

Report: Atlanta in negotiations to hire Golden State assistant GM Travis Schlenk as Hawks GM

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The Atlanta Hawks brought in some big names — Chauncey Billups most recently, they thought about Brent Barry, they took a swing at Portland GM Neil Olshey — but in the end, they went with the guy who has paid his dues, comes from a great team culture, and someone who deserves a shot. In short, they made the right play.

The Hawks are in talks to hire Golden State assistant GM Travis Schlenk to take over the big chair in Atlanta, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Atlanta Hawks are working on a contract agreement to hire Golden State Warriors executive Travis Schlenk as general manager, league sources told The Vertical. Barring any unforeseen snags, a deal could be completed as soon as Wednesday, league sources told The Vertical….

Schlenk has spent 12 years in the Warriors’ front office, including the past five as assistant GM under Bob Myers.

The position was available because Mike Budenholzer has stepped away from the coach and GM role with the team over a disagreement about direction. Now that direction question falls on Schlenk’s shoulders: Paul Millsap is a free agent this summer, should the Hawks re-sign him to a max deal and likely be a 4-6 seed for the foreseeable future, a good but not great team, or start the rebuild now? What to do about Dwight Howard and the two-years, $47.3 million he is owed? How much do they want to pay Tim Hardaway Jr., he is a restricted free agent?

Schlenk is a quality hire, a guy respected around the league who should make well thought out decisions. But he walks right into a room of tough decisions.

Report: Timberwolves, maybe Spurs have interest in Derrick Rose as a free agent

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The one thing we know about Derrick Rose‘s free agency this summer is that he will not return to the Knicks. After that, things are wide open. He and his agent say winning is what matters, and Rose can play off the ball (despite his iffy jumper), but will he accept less money and a lesser (maybe sixth man) role to be on a winning team?

The teams looking at him this summer seem to have a backup point guard role in mind, at least based on a report from Ian Begley of ESPN.

The Minnesota Timberwolves view Derrick Rose as a potential free-agent target this summer, league sources told ESPN…

Rose, the 2011 MVP, has a strong relationship with Timberwolves president and head coach Tom Thibodeau; he played for five seasons under Thibodeau with the Chicago Bulls…

It is unclear at this point which other outside teams besides the Timberwolves view Rose as a potential free-agent target. Some rival executives believe the San Antonio Spurs may have interest in Rose, depending on how the free-agent market for point guards develops.

In both cases, Rose would be the backup asked to bring scoring off the bench. In Minnesota, Ricky Rubio played the best ball of his career after the All-Star break and Tom Thibodeau will ride that (and Rubio’s quality defense) into next season. However, Kris Dunn has not panned out as a backup and Rose could be a good fit there.

In San Antonio, the point guard spot is more fluid. Tony Parker has a career-threatening injury suffered in the playoffs, and Patty Mills is a free agent. While there are rumors about them chasing Chris Paul, to do that would require a gutting of the roster (moving Pau Gasol and Parker for no money back, plus letting guys such as Mills and Dewayne Dedmon go for nothing) and there would be no money left for a guy like Rose. However, that scenario is unlikely, and if the Spurs bring Mills back Rose could make a good backup.

The question is money. Rose can still get buckets, he averaged 18 a game last season plus 4.4 assists, and he may be due a salary into the eight-figure range. But will a team pay that? And for how many years? San Antonio, if it keeps Gasol and Mills, would basically have the mid-level exception at a little more than $8 million a season. Minnesota may not offer much more. The teams willing to offer more money and a larger role to Rose are likely not ones on a deep playoff track (or maybe making the playoffs at all).

The market for Rose will be interesting, and maybe not as robust as he imagines. It will come down to what his priorities truly are.

Rumor: “Rumblings” Chris Paul has interest in San Antonio Spurs

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We were robbed of the chance to see exactly how the San Antonio Spurs match up with the Golden State Warriors in a seven-game series, and you can direct your blame at Zaza Pachulia. But even if Kawhi Leonard were healthy, San Antonio could use another distributor and shot creator on the perimeter, someone to replace what Tony Parker used to bring them.

How about Chris Paul?

That rumor has been circulating for a while, that the Clippers’ free agent guard wants to win and sees a path to a ring through Gregg Popovich in San Antonio. ESPN’s well-connected Zach Lowe confirmed that during a recent Lowe Post Podcast.

“There’s been a lot of rumblings about Chris Paul, and I think that’s real,” Lowe says. “I think there’s mutual interest there. I don’t know how real it is given the Clippers can offer a gigantic amount of money and are also a really good team; and the Spurs, like I said, have no sort of cap flexibility to get there. I’m very curious about what they do this summer and who’s on the team next year.”

It’s easy to see the logic of a path to winning there, and it’s easy to understand why the Spurs would want to go this route. CP3 is the best floor general in the game, he can shoot the three, and he’s still a strong defender at the position. Go to the Spurs and he makes bigs like LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol look better, he gets rest for his aging body, and he gets to chase a ring.

Don’t bet on it happening, however, and the reason is money.

Paul was head of the players’ union during the negotiation of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that kicks in July 1 and a new provision in that CBA is that the over 36 rule — limiting max contracts for guys who turned 36 during the deal — will become the over 38 rule. Why? Because it gives Chris Paul one more five-year max contract from the Clippers. Are you going to go through all the hassle of changing the CBA then walk away from that money?

The only way San Antonio could get near max cap space would be to shed the salaries of Pau Gasol — $16 million next season, and he has said he’s opting in — and Tony Parker, plus just let Patty Mills walk as well as guys likeDewayne Dedmon. The Spurs may be willing to do this, but to trade Gasol and bring no salary back is going to require serious sweeteners in the deal (picks or young players). And it would be very un-Spurs to coldly let Tony Parker go for a cap-space move — Popovich is not Bill Belichick.

In reality, the Spurs would need to get CP3 to take less, and I’m not sold he will do that. Paul will take the meeting, he will talk to a number of teams this summer, but in the end expect him to take the payday and re-sign with the Clippers (maybe giving himself an opt-out after three or four years in case he then wants to ring chase elsewhere).

 

2017 NBA Draft Prospect Profiles: Will Lonzo Ball justify LaVar Ball’s hype? Does he fit on the Lakers?

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
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Lonzo Ball is unlike anything that we’ve seen come through the college ranks in recent years.

It’s not simply that he’s a 6-foot-6 point guard with range out to 30 feet on his jump shot and court vision that is probably more aptly described as radar. Lonzo is the son of LaVar Ball, who has become a viral sensation and a quasi-celebrity due to the nature of the way the media operates today and his desire to turn the Ball family into an athletic apparel brand.

Put another way, the circus surrounding Lonzo isn’t just a result of him being the closest thing we’ve seen to Jason Kidd since he was torching Pac-12 defenses with Cal back in the early-90s.

It’s unfortunate that the discussion about Lonzo’s potential has a pro has been dominated by whether or not LaVar is too involved in his son’s life, because the conversation about whether or not the oldest of the three Ball kids can transform an NBA team the way that he’s transformed his high school and college teams is far more intriguing, and frankly, more relevant.

Lonzo’s strengths are elite in every sense of the word. But he has some pronounced weaknesses that, at the very least, make you wonder if the team he ends up on will have to tailor their roster to cover those holes.

What kind of a pro will Ball end up being?

Height: 6′6″
Weight: 190
Wingspan: 6′9″
2016-17 Stats: 14.6 points, 6.0 boards, 7.6 assists, 73.2% 2PT, 41.2% 3PT

STRENGTHS: What Lonzo Ball does well he does at an absolutely elite level, and you can’t talk about Ball without first mentioning his unbelievable skill in transition.

It starts with his ability to get from one end of the floor to the other. He isn’t the quickest or most explosive guard in this draft, but once he hits his top gear, he can run away from the defense; 30 percent of his offense, according to Synergy, came in transition possessions. He creates transition opportunities himself. He not only runs on turnovers or off of an outlet, he’ll go and grab a defensive rebound himself and lead the break. This not only creates layups for himself, where, at 6-foot-6, he can finish at or above the rim with either hand, but it puts pressure on the defense to stop the ball. He also runs hard without the ball, and his size and athleticism allows him to be a lob target in transition.

As good as Ball is going running, he’s even better passing the ball in transition. It’s incredibly entertaining to watch. His vision and understanding of where his teammates are going to be is on another level — his basketball IQ is off-the-charts — and he is able to vary the angle, the height or the hand that he passes with in order to get the ball where it needs to go. He’s a quick, decisive and creative decision-maker with the size to see over the defense and accuracy that would make Aaron Rodgers jealous.

It’s not just in transition where he has that kind of success. He can make just about any pass you need to make coming off of a ball-screen — a big popping, a big rolling to the rim, same-side shooters, weak-side shooters. Again, his size here is an incredible advantage, allowing him not only to see over the defense but to make passes over the defense.

His unselfishness permeates a team. His teammates fill lanes and run to spot-up because they know he’ll reward them for doing it. They make the extra pass because they know the ball will eventually find its way back to them. It’s contagious, and it starts with Ball.

As a scorer, he does have some limitations — we’ll get to that — but the things he does well he’s very good at. It starts with his three-point shooting, where he has range well beyond the NBA three-point line, either off the catch, off the dribble or off of a vicious step-back jumper that was borderline-unstoppable in college. He shot 41.2 percent from beyond the arc as a freshman, many of those from out to 30 feet. He also shot 73.2 percent from inside the arc, which speaks to his effectiveness at getting to, and finishing at, the rim; Ball only attempted 13 shots inside the arc that weren’t layups or dunks, as he’s a very good straight line driver going right.

Ball is also better moving off the ball than he gets credit for. He can run off of screens and bury threes off the catch or off of a one-dribble pull-up, and his size and ability to make back-door cuts made him a lob target for UCLA this past season.

Defensively, Ball must add strength to his frame, but he proved to be a pretty effective defender one-on-one when he was actually engaged on that end. His physical tools, his anticipation and his basketball IQ make him a dangerous defensive playmaker as well, and that should carry over to the next level as well.

WEAKNESSES: What Ball does well he does as well as anyone that we see at the college level, but his struggles are just as glaring as his strengths are obvious, and it all stems around one, simple question: Will Ball be able to create offense in a half-court setting?

The biggest issue is his jump shot. When he’s knocking down threes, be it off the catch or off of that deadly step-back, he’s bring the ball all the way over to the left side of his body and his feet are pointing well off to the left of the rim. On catch-and-shoot opportunities, this isn’t all that much of an issue — there are shooting coaches that will teach players to have a slight turn; watch Stephen Curry‘s feet when he shoots threes — and when Ball shoots his step-back, his feet are naturally going to be angled in that direction.

The trouble comes when he’s attempting to pull-up, particularly when he is going to his right. His feet are out of whack and he has to bring the ball all the way to the other side of his body, which is part of the reason Ball appears to fumble with the ball quite often when shooting off the dribble. As a result, Ball essentially has no mid-range game. On the season, Ball made 189 field goals: 80 of them were threes, 102 of them were layups or dunks and only seven were either floaters or two-point jumpers.

This issue is also evident when he shoots free throws, as his toes are pointed directly at the rim. That’s why a guy that shoots 73 percent from two and 41 percent from three makes just 67 percent of his free throws.

Ball’s other issue is in the pick-and-roll, where he never proved to be much of a scoring threat. There were just 49 pick-and-roll possessions all season where Ball wasn’t a passer — for comparison’s sake, Markelle Fultz had 184 while playing 11 fewer games — and he turned the ball over on 32 percent of them. He had nearly three times as many pick-and-roll possessions as a passer, and all of 33 possessions in isolation.

The result is that Ball is entirely too predictable in the half court. If he’s getting a ball-screen, he’s going to be a passer three out of four times. If he’s going right, he’s going all the way to the rim. If he’s going left, you know it’s going to be a pull-up. Throw in questions about whether or not he has the first-step to turn the corner at the next level, and there are certainly legitimate concerns about his effectiveness against NBA defenders.

UCLA guard Lonzo Ball (AP Photo/Matt York)

NBA COMPARISON: Jason Kidd is the obvious one, and it mostly works. Both are big guards with unbelievable court vision and an unselfishness that permeates a team. Both are average athletes by NBA standards. Both thrive in transition. Both make a lot of threes — Kidd is eighth all-time in three-pointers made — even if there are questions about how good, or effective, they are as shooters. All that left is to find out whether or not Ball can put together a Hall of Fame career, or if he can sell signature shoes, like Kidd.

OUTLOOK: Ball is going to end up being drafted by the Lakers with the No. 2 pick. We can pretend like there is going to be drama here, like Magic Johnson is going to look at a big point guard, a local kid, with an innate ability to lead the break and see anything other than himself and the reincarnation of the Showtime Lakers, but that would be a waste of time.

What that means is that Ball, the No. 2 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, will be teamed up with D'Angelo Russell, a point guard that was the No. 2 pick in the 2015 Draft, and Brandon Ingram, a wing that was the No. 2 pick of the 2016 NBA Draft.

And, frankly, I think that works. What Russell and Ingram do well make up for where Ball struggles. Russell operates in the pick-and-roll as a ball-handler in the half court. Ingram is an isolation scorer that shot better than 41 percent from three in his one season at Duke. If Ball struggles to create in half court settings, he can act as a floor-spacer thanks to his ability in catch-and-shoot actions.

That’s before you consider that Luke Walton, the second-year head coach of the Lakers, spent two seasons as an assistant — one of which where he spent half of the season as the interim head coach — with the Warriors, and the offense UCLA ran this year, one heavy on spacing, ball-movement and player movement, is quite similar to what the Warriors run.

Put another way, on paper, Los Angeles looks like the perfect place for Ball, a exquisitely skilled albeit flawed prospect, to end up.