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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: Kings willing to trade DeMarcus Cousins because his moodiness bothers teammates

Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins walks up court during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs, Saturday, March 5, 2016, in San Antonio. San Antonio won 104-94. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)
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The Kings, after years of shutting down DeMarcus Cousins trade rumors, will reportedly seriously explore the market.

What changed for Sacramento general manager Vlade Divac?

Ailene Voisin of The Sacramento Bee:

the sense within the organization is Divac is tempted by the prospect of pairing his center with his personally selected coach but that he has become increasingly frustrated by his center’s ongoing issues and, for the first time, is willing to test the market for the two-time All-Star.

The disconnect between Karl and Divac, and Karl and Cousins, is rivaled closely by the discord within the fragmented locker room. Apart from Rondo, Cousins has few friends among his teammates. Several players privately have complained to management about his mood swings and disrespect for those around him, including his coaches and in particular Karl.

I still doubt Sacramento trades Cousins. There’s a vast gulf between soliciting Cousins offers and actually pulling the trigger on one. He remains one of the NBA’s most valuable players – already a star, 25 and locked up for two more seasons at a reasonable $35 million combined. It’d take a haul to land him, and I doubt any team offers a package that sways Divac – though a few could have him thinking.

But Cousins’ moodiness is a problem. It gets him harmful technical fouls, takes him out of games mentally and – as we learn here – upsets his teammates.

It seems the Kings are attempting to scare him straight – reports like this leaking, including one that their next coach will have management’s backing if he wants to discipline Cousins.  They have to try something. Rajon Rondo‘s leadership, while endearing to Cousins, apparently didn’t change the center significantly enough.

I wouldn’t rule out Sacramento trading Cousins. If you put a player on the market, you might just hear an offer you like. But selling low on Cousins a – franchise-level player – would be a mistake. It’s too hard to get a player with his talent just to dump him when he’s still young.

A far better outcome would be Cousins heeding these implicit messages, maturing and cutting out the nonsense that too often overshadows his immense talent.

Tony Allen warns Mike Conley: ‘If I see you in New York or one of them places, you got a flagrant foul coming’

Memphis Grizzlies forward Tony Allen (9) and guard Mike Conley (11) react during the second half of Game 2 in a second-round NBA playoff basketball series against the Golden State Warriors in Oakland, Calif., Tuesday, May 5, 2015. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
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Marc Gasol has a simple plan for convincing Mike Conley to re-sign with the Grizzlies: Be nice.

Tony Allen is going another way.

Peter Fleischer of Fox 13 Memphis:

Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace says Conley will re-sign with Memphis. Others disagree. For his part, Conley has been vague – though he left the door open for signing with the Knicks, need a point guard and could have max cap space .

Conley will have options, and he should explore them. This will be his first free agency after the Grizzlies drafted him and signed him to a contract extension. Staying with the only NBA team he has know should be appealing – but other options could be, too.

People in Memphis clearly care about him returning.

Each in their own way.

Report: Randy Wittman favoring Nene, Ramon Sessions frustrated other Wizards

Washington Wizards head coach Randy Wittman, second from right, talks with his team, including forward Nene (42), from Brazil, center Marcin Gortat (4), from Poland, and guard John Wall (2) during a timeout in the second period of an NBA basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013, in Washington. The Cavaliers won 103-96 in overtime.(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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How can new coach Scott Brooks get the underwhelming Wizards on track?

Looking back on Randy Wittman’s tenure could be instructive.

Wittman reportedly upset players by playing favorites, namely Nene and Ramon Sessions.

J. Michael of CSN Washington:

I’m told by multiple persons with knowledge of the situation, it was Wittman’s outright refusal to ever call out Nene that was at the heart of it.

Tensions were raised when the team would study game film and Wittman always was quick to call out the likes of Wall and Bradley Beal while Nene routinely received a free pass.

“It was all our fault. He did nothing wrong,” a player said, nodding at  Nene, in the locker room in Oakland, Calif., and this came the night before Beal’s blowup following a loss the to the Sacramento Kings when he called his teammates for not playing hard or smart.

Even when it came to Ramon Sessions, who had a strong season as Wall’s backup and in the final year of his deal, Wittman curiously refused to criticize him for soft defensive coverages on pick-and-rolls. The perception became that Sessions is such a likable and great player to coach, Wittman didn’t want to mention him by name and as with Nene he’d blame the mistake on the collective instead of that individual.

Sessions, I’m told, actually challenged Wittman to call him out if he’s suggesting that he was at fault. It wasn’t a combative posture by Sessions. He wanted the coaching.

Wittman was rarely shy about criticizing his players publicly – including John Wall (here), Bradley Beal (here) and Marcin Gortat (here). That’d be especially frustrating if Wittman were also giving other players preferential treatment behind closed doors. You could see how that would create a culture of finger pointing, which extended among players.

Thankfully for Washington, Brooks seems prepared to fix these issues. He managed Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook during their ascension with the Thunder, carefully attending to each budding star’s needs without offending the other. If Brooks can walk that tightrope, the Wizards should be a breeze.

Wittman will have to defend these charges if he wants another head-coaching job, and his side of the story might leave a different impression. But it’s more important now how the players feel than whether they rightfully feel that way. Wittman is gone. Some of the players will remain, though Nene and Sessions are free agents. Even if they didn’t ask for special treatment, Nene and Sessions leaving could alleviate the negative feelings associated with them in the locker room.

Would letting Nene and Sessions walk solve everything? It could help, but probably not. It’s on Brooks to change the dynamic, and I think he can.

Paul George says he’s willing to play all 48 minutes in Game 6 against Raptors

Indiana Pacers' Paul George (13) drives to the basket as Toronto Raptors' DeMarre Carroll (5) defends during the second half of Game 5 of an NBA first-round playoff basketball series, Tuesday, April 26, 2016 in Toronto. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
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The on/off splits for Paul George in the Pacers-Raptors series, which Toronto leads 3-2, are jarring:

  • On: +26 in 189 minutes
  • Off: -29 in 51 minutes

Indiana’s problems without George came to a head in Game 5. In the 6:55 George sat, the Pacers shot 0-for-10 and got outscored 19-1. That was more than enough for the Raptors, who won by three when Solomon Hill‘s game-tying 3-pointer left his hand a fraction of a second too late.

How do the Pacers solve this problem?

Nick Friedell of ESPN:

Paul George said he is willing to play 48 minutes in Friday night’s Game 6 against the Toronto Raptors if needed.

“If that’s the direction that the game is going, I’m all for it,” George said after Thursday’s practice. “Whatever we got to do to win, I’m doing it.”‘

The only player to play a full this game was Rajon Rondo, who played 48 minutes in consecutive (!) Kings games in November. The last player to do it in a playoff game was Jimmy Butler, who played all 53 minutes of a Bulls’ overtime loss to the Wizards in 2014.

So, it can be done, and George is the type of athlete who can do it.

But can George sustain his elite production without a rest? That’s the main question, including how it’d affect him for a potential Game 7. With Indiana’s season on the line, it might be worth finding out.

There are also last drastic solutions. Frank Vogel used one lineup the entire time George sat in Game 5: Ty LawsonRodney StuckeyC.J. Miles-Solomon Hill-Ian Mahinmi.

Maybe don’t run the offense through Lawson, Stuckey and Miles at any point of a must-win game? Stagger minutes between George and Monta Ellis and maybe George Hill. Ellis is the type of player who can lead a bad team in scoring, but regularly bad would be a huge step up for the George-less Pacers. George Hill has also proven capable of handling the reins without George.

Vogel’s goal should be maximizing George’s minutes but also minimizing time Indiana spends without George, Ellis or George Hill.