Last Weekend of Hope: Western 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 Western 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.)

Dallas Mavericks: Dirk Nowitzki has aged about as well as any star of his ilk can. Jason Kidd actually shot better from the arc. Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood have a full training camp of work with the team to get adjusted. And Rodrigue Beaubois and Dominique Jones are legit. There’s no reason this team shouldn’t finally crack their way back into the Conference Finals. And once there, with the Mavericks size, speed, and talent, they’ll just need to get two games at Staples to have a shot. This can be done. It’s got to happen sometime, right?

Denver Nuggets: Sure Carmelo’s thinking about leaving. But when we bust out to a big start, he’ll change his mind. He has to. This is the team that drafted him. He’s not like LeBron. And we have a much better team, with Chauncey, KMart, Nene, and Lawson. We were in the Conference Finals two years ago! How could you leave a team like this for a lottery team? This team underwent a series of disasters it couldn’t have predicted last year, but it also played the Lakers tight. All it’s got to do is stay focused. And when Melo signs the extension, they can do just that.

Golden State Warriors: Cohan’s gone. Theyhave the best sophomore player in the league in Stephen Curry. Monta Ellis is ready to stop being a problem. They got David Lee and a new head coach that wants the team to actually play defense. There’s no way this team isn’t considerably better than last year’s. It’s nearly physically impossible. Better talent, better coaching, better ownership. Things finally look up in the Bay.

Houston Rockets: 24 minutes a game. There’s absolutely no reason this team can’t stay healthy with Yao only playing 24 minutes a game. They’re deep. They’re versatile. They’re extremely well coached and now have some offensive firepower. This team was painfully close to taking out the Lakers two years ago, but all of a sudden with a better team they’re also-rans? In Morey everyone should trust. All the team needs is for a series of things not to go wrong. That can’t be that hard to avoid. Sure, Yao’s injury-prone. But that’s why the minute limit exists. And it will get this team to the playoffs where there isn’t a team that matches up with them.

Los Angeles Clippers: Blake Griffin. Blake Griffin, Blake Griffin. Blake Griffin Blake Griffin Blake Griffin, Blake Griffin Blake Griffin Blake Griffin Blake Griffin. Eric Gordon, Blake Griffin. Blake Griffin.

Los Angeles Lakers: Count the rings, y’all. Count the rings.

Memphis Grizzlies: The team might have a bench! With Xavier Henry, Tony Allen, and an improved Sam Young, if the team can just hold leads on nights when all the starters aren’t on fire, it’s possible they could sneak into the playoffs. They overpaid for Rudy Gay, but he’s also the franchise star. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph make up one of the best frontcourt tandems in the league and Lionel Hollins is a decided advantage. With a fast-break team that got wins over a lot of playoff squads last year, why can’t they take a step forward and win a playoff series?

Minnesota Timberwolves: The media just hates us. And David Kahn. They’re just too simple to see the truth. This team is primed for a breakout. They say Kevin Love is such a terrific talent, but the Timberwolves won’t use him despite trading Jefferson to make room for him.They say Michael Beasley is such a waste, but he tore up the preseason. They say they overpaid for Darko but then talk about the lack of legitimate centers in the league. If the media would get over themselves, they’d see that Wes Johnson is  a star in the making, Kevin Love is already a star, the team has better depth, and all this before Rubio comes. But after this season, there’s no way he’ll stay away. Then the media will see how great Kahn’s plan is.

New Orleans Hornets: Chris Paul’s back, so the Hornets have Chris Paul, to go along with David West, Okafor, Thornton, and now Bayless. The Hornets almost made the playoffs without CP3 playing. How good will they be with him on board, and a better wing in Ariza. It’s time for everyone to remember how great CP3 is. Now if we could only get the team sold…

Oklahoma City Thunder: Sorry! Can’t talk right now! We’re having a party over how great our team and its future is for the next four years! PS Kevin Durant is the MVP!

Phoenix Suns: Okay, losing Amar’e is going to hurt. But hurt enough to lose a playoff spot? Did the Suns lose Steve Nash, too? Oh, no, they didn’t. They’ll be fine. The team won last year with slightly decent defense and a tougher brand of offense. Hakim Warrick and Josh Childress will help in their positions and the team is still deep enough to win as long as Nash is healthy. Never count out Steve Nash.

Portland Trailblazers: Pritchard’s gone, but Cho looks great so far. Freak injuries were the only things that delayed progress last season. And Greg Oden will be a franchise player. He just has bad luck. And bad luck passes. When he gets healthy, he’ll become the All-Star he was before the injury. Brandon Roy will bounce back, the back court depth has improved and been cleaned up. There’s been every indication that the team will only improve this season, and with Nate McMillan at the helm, they can survive until everyone gets healthy. The team isn’t a young squad anymore, but it’s deep and versatile. And all it needs is a few things to go its way, for once. That’s go to happen sometime.

Sacramento Kings: Looks like Thunder. Feels like Thunder. Loaded like Thunder. Why can’t the Kings make a huge leap with two superstars they drafted? Tyreke Evans is the best sophomore in the league, the team is coming together, DeMarcus Cousins will be a beast, and they have some depth to go along with the talent. There’s no reason this team can’t make a push for the playoffs.

San Antonio Spurs: Greatness doesn’t age. It endures. A healthy team and this is the Western Conference Finals. A few things go right and the Spurs are in the playoffs. Is there any question that this team can’t compete with the Lakers in a seven game series? One more ring for Timmy. Something to keep Parker home. The Blair Bear. Jefferson’s fitting in. James Anderson was another steal. Pop’s got one more ring in him. Duncan needs one to put him ahead of Shaq once and for all. The window hasn’t closed, and the youth on this team could prop it open just long enough to steal gold.

Utah Jazz: Lost Carlos Boozer. Added Al Jefferson. Lost Kyle Korver. Added Raja Bell. Lost Ronnie Brewer. Added Gordon Hayward. This is the definition of a reloaded team, and one that may be better than the one last season. The team has faced nothing but heartbreak in the playoffs. But anything can happen in sports. That has to be how it is. What’s the point, otherwise?

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.