Miami Heat v Chicago Bulls

NBA playoff picture slowly starting to come into focus

1 Comment

At this point, nothing would really surprise me when the NBA playoffs start in a month.

Well, Indiana winning the NBA title — heck, more than one game — would surprise me. So that is not totally true. But it’s hard to remember a more wide-open year. Every potential contender has enough strengths that you can champion them, enough flaws you can make an argument that dooms them.

Matchups will be key. And those matchups are slowly starting to come into focus. Let’s take a look one month out from the second season.

Eastern Conference

At the top: As of Wednesday morning, Chicago at 48-18 has a half game lead over Boston for the top spot, with Miami lurking 2.5 games back. Like the playoffs themselves, no finishing order here would be a real surprise, but there are some signs that look good in the windy city.

Getting that top seed matters because, as much as Orlando (who is basically locked in at the four seed) is not to be taken lightly, they scare anyone like the three right at the top do. The East’s two/three seed second round matchup will be a killer. Avoid that at all costs.

Chicago’s next 10 games feature only three teams over .500 and no team in the top four in either conference. They could push that slim lead out and hold on to the top spot. Miami is playing well again and after some tough games the rest of this week their schedule lightens up considerably. They are playing better defense and could make a real run at Boston in the two slot and even the top spot. Boston has a couple tough road trips ahead, they need to get their edge back or slipping to the three seed is not out of question.

Two games to watch: Boston at Chicago April 7, then Boston at the Heat April 10. Those could be big.

The East’s middle and bottom: The middle of the East looks pretty set. Look for another Orlando vs. Atlanta playoff series, although this time in the first round as the four and five seeds (the Magic swept that series last year). Philadelphia could catch New York for the six seed, either way the Sixers are a team the top teams are watching. Philly likely will not beat but will push whoever they face in the first round. They will not be an easy out.

The eight seed? Whichever team sucks the least amongst Indiana (currently in that slot), Charlotte (half a game back) and Milwaukee (2.5 back and fading). That team will have the honor of getting swept out in the first round. Indiana helped its cause with a couple wins over the Knicks and has the softest schedule from here on out. But it’s about sucking the least among these three.

Western Conference

At the top: Your San Antonio Spurs are the top seed and nobody is catching them. Whether their defense finds its way back is a question for another day, but San Antonio will have home court advantage for every round it plays in the playoffs.

The Lakers/Mavericks two/three seed battle in the West is more interesting. Currently the Lakers are the two seed by half a game over Dallas and Los Angeles may be playing the best ball in the West over the past couple weeks. That includes a thumping of the Mavs. That win raises this question: Does Dallas need home court to beat the Lakers in the second round? If so, they need to make a push now.

Oklahoma City is likely your four seed (unless they falter and Denver stays red hot). With Kendrick Perkins in the paint and a year of playoff experience, can they knock off the Spurs in the second round? That may be the most interesting question in the playoffs.

The West’s middle and bottom: All that talk above about second round matchups — that could be moot. The teams on the bottom half of the West are playing well right now, they are dangerous. The way Denver is defending and moving the ball makes them a real threat to Oklahoma City or anyone else in the first round. I’ve been told by people from a couple teams they want to avoid current eight-seed Memphis Grizzlies in the first round — that’s a long and dangerous front line with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, plus they have good wing players (with Rudy Gay due back in a week or two). Memphis is dangerous. Even to beat them could take a lot out of a team, who would then face a stiff second round challenge.

As for the other two teams, Portland is playing well and New Orleans brings a good defense and the always-dangerous Chris Paul to the table.

Only 2.5 games separate the five and eight seeds in the West, so predicting an order of finish is like predicting the NCAA tournament. Basically luck matters more than skill. Utah (2 games) and Phoenix (2.5 games) are looking up at the eight seed and want into to the party, but nobody in that top 8 is fading. That’s likely leaves Phoenix, Utah and Houston at the bottom of the lottery.

My prediction: One of the top four seeds in the West will get upset in the first round. It’s too early to say who — matchups and who is hot heading in will be factors — but the West remains deep. There will be no easy outs. Somebody is going to slip up.

Reports: Minnesota working hard to trade Ricky Rubio by deadline; Knicks swap for Rose possible

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 28: Ricky Rubio #9 of the Minnesota Timberwolves brings the ball down court against the Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center on December 28, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that , by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Leave a comment

On paper, Ricky Rubio seemed a good fit for the Tom Thibodeau’s Timberwolves: He’s a gifted passer and strong defender who knows how to run a team. In practice, his lack of shooting on a team of slashers and a big man inside — Karl-Anthony Towns — allowed teams to clog the lane.

So the Timberwolves are working hard to find a landing spot for him before the trade deadline at 3 p.m. Eastern, according to multiple reports.

This has led to talks with the Knicks of a Ricky Rubio for Derrick Rose swap, and there is more than just smoke with this. Although, if there is enough fire to get a deal done is another question entirely.

A Rose/Rubio swap is a small win for the Knicks — Rubio would find a way to get the ball to Kristaps Porzingis and Carmelo Anthony, plus he improves their defense. Also, it means they don’t have to overpay Rose or another point guard this summer as Rubio is under contract for next season.

For the Timberwolves, they get a guy who will get them some buckets on the drive but who also takes opportunities out of the hands of Towns, Andrew Wiggins and everyone else. Plus Minnesota’s defense gets worse. I’m not sure how that gets them to the playoffs.

Yao Ming elected Chinese Basketball Association president

SPRINGFIELD, MA - SEPTEMBER 09:  Yao Ming reacts during the 2016 Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony at Symphony Hall on September 9, 2016 in Springfield, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
1 Comment

BEIJING (AP) — The Chinese Basketball Association has voted unanimously to appoint NBA Hall of Famer Yao Ming as its president.

The CBA’s social media account quoted Yao as saying at a ceremony on Thursday that he hoped to reform the domestic league’s draft system and push more Chinese players into the international arena.

Yao’s appointment is considered as a reform step for an association which until now has typically been led by government sports officials.

Yao, 36, was one of the first Chinese athletes to become an international household name when the Houston Rockets drafted him with the first pick in 2002. The 2.29-meter (7-foot-6) center played for eight seasons before retiring in 2011, citing chronic injuries.

The Shanghai-born Yao was elected to the NBA Hall of Fame in 2016.

As trade rumors swirl, Paul George gets back to work with Pacers

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 14:  Paul George #13 of the Indiana Pacers looks on during a game against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on December 14, 2016 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
1 Comment

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Paul George showed up to work Wednesday wearing the same Indiana Pacers uniform he has all season.

He has no changes planned for Thursday either.

With rumors swirling about George’s future and the NBA’s trade deadline set for 3 p.m. EST on Thursday, the four-time All-Star tried to tamp down speculation by staying focused on his current job.

“I’ve got a team to turn around in the second half, and that’s what I’m committed to,” he said Wednesday after an evening practice at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

George could have avoided a bit of conflict if he had used those same words in an interview Friday on ESPN radio.

Instead, he talked about his desire to “play on a winning team” after being asked about a possible extension with the Pacers, leading some to wonder if George is uneasy about a longterm deal in Indiana. An unwillingness to sign could land him on the trading block.

George knows it’s all part of the basketball business, even if it’s tricky for big-name players.

If he is actually available, the 26-year-old star would be one of the hottest commodities on the market.

George is again one of the league’s best scorers, has appeared on the league’s all-defensive team three times and was the NBA’s Most Improved Player in 2013. He’s led his team to two conference finals and won an Olympic gold medal. And he has a propensity for delivering on promises, like when he swore to come back better than ever after breaking his lower right leg in a horrifying scene 2+ years ago.

Now Pacers fans want to know whether George will make good on another promise: Bringing the franchise its first NBA title.

The decision may rest more with Bird, the Pacers’ president of basketball operations, than George.

Bird is trying to do what’s best for the short and long term. Indiana has lost six straight and is currently seeded sixth in the Eastern Conference.

George wants to be a part of the solution.

“I think we can make moves to get better,” he said. “I’m confident in where we’re at and what we can do.”

George’s contract has added a twist to the traditional discussions.

While Bird has already offered a max contract extension, George can opt out of his current deal after next season. He seemed to indicate he might do just that during last week’s All-Star activities.

“As I told Larry, I always want to play on a winning team. I always want to be part of a team that has a chance to win it (all). That’s important,” George said Friday. “Say what you want; I want to compete for something. It’s frustrating just playing the game for stats or for numbers or to showcase yourself. Man, I want a chance to play for a chance to win a championship.

“I wanted to be the first and want to be the first to be able to bring a championship to Indiana,” George added. “So that’s still on my mind … and something I definitely want to achieve in Indiana.”

The Indianapolis Star reported Wednesday that George and team owner Herb Simon met in New Orleans, a subject George declined to discuss Wednesday.

George did say that he and Bird are “on the same page.”

What exactly that means for Thursday remains unclear.

Bird must decide what works best – strengthening George’s supporting cast, or collecting players and draft picks so they can go in a different direction.

George’s teammates are hopeful the star is still around for Friday night’s game against Memphis.

“I would hope so,” point guard Jeff Teague said. “I enjoy playing with him. He’s the reason I wanted to be here.”

Reports: Kings front office rushed to trade DeMarcus Cousins, fearing owner would change mind

Vlade Divac, Vivek Ranadive
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
1 Comment

Why did the Kings trade DeMarcus Cousins late Sunday night? Might they have gotten a better off than the Pelicans’ piddly package by waiting until closer to Thursday’s trade deadline?

Kings general manager Vlade Divac felt pressure on multiple fronts.

First, as he said, he had a better offer two days prior and feared the return would only get worse. Cognizant of losing out on the designated-veteran-player extension, Cousins’ agent was threatening not to re-sign with teams that traded for Cousins, and that apparently spooked one at least one potential suitor.

And then there’s Sacramento owner Vivek Ranadive, who reportedly has been intent on keeping Cousins.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports on The Vertical Podcast with Chris Mannix:

They wanted to do this deal before Vivek Ranadive changed his mind again. This talk about this new list of transgressions by Cousins over the last few weeks — the incident with the Golden State fan, the technical fouls now that it turned into suspensions — these were very consistent with what’s gone on. These weren’t new. Now, they used that to say, “Well, we just decided we couldn’t go forward with him.” Management, the front office, they’ve wanted to trade him for a very long time. And they could not get Vivek on board. Once they had Vivek on board, they didn’t want him to change his mind again. A, that was part of the reason they rushed on Sunday to get the deal done.

Marc Stein of ESPN on The Lowe Post podcast:

Vivek has been resistant to a DeMarcus Cousins trade for so long. He was into the Buddy Hield-New Orleans package idea, and the Kings’ front-office people wanted to push this thing through as fast they could before the owner changed his mind. I think that’s where the urgency came.

Cousins contributed to a toxic environment in Sacramento. For all the good he brought, there were plenty of negatives. I understand trading him to improve the culture.

But if you have to rush through a trade before other teams (like the Lakers) have a chance to improve their offers just so your Buddy-Hield loving owner won’t harmfully meddle, maybe jettisoning Cousins won’t eliminate all the dysfunction.