Miami Heat v Chicago Bulls

NBA playoff picture slowly starting to come into focus

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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.

Sixers’ Jahlil Okafor said he’s “embarrassed,” called actions “dumb”

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Sixers’ big man Jahlil Okafor isn’t going to face serious repercussions for getting involved in a fight outside a Boston nightclub on Wednesday. The police are not investigating, the team is not suspending him (he is playing Friday night against Houston) and the Sixers are supporting him.

But Okafor admits he should have walked away, and his actions were “dumb” and “embarrassing.” Here is the money quote (the full video interview is above):

“It was definitely dumb on my part. It’s something that I am embarrassed about, (we’re) still dealing with the league and the team. But I’m not happy about it at all.”

Of course, this has led to renewed criticism of people around the league who are not fans of GM Sam Hinkie’s pushing the “be bad to get good” boundaries to new levels. Like it or not, that system can work, and depending on how the next draft unfolds, the future of Joel Embiid, and when Dario Saric comes over, there could be some very nice young building blocks — some real franchise cornerstones — in Philly in a couple of years. The plan can work if Hinkie nails the draft.

But one criticism of their plan does ring true to me — a couple louder, veteran voices in the locker room could help the maturation process. Would it have kept Okafor from doing something stupid with a heckler in front of a club? Likely not. But it would speed up the learning process, it would instill professionalism rather than the more chaotic system now. Michael Lee summed it up well at Yahoo.

The 76ers haven’t had a player older than 25 step on the court this season…. Carl Landry is the team’s oldest player at 32 but he has yet to make his season debut, putting too much pressure on Brett Brown and his coaching staff to teach the kids what it takes to be professional.

Philadelphia hasn’t hidden its desire to lose big now to win big later, but it shouldn’t just view veterans as salary-cap holds or a means to acquire more second-round picks. The Minnesota Timberwolves finished with the league’s worst record last season but invested in expediting the development of No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns, reigning Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins and fellow first-round pick Zach LaVine by bringing in aging vets Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince and Andre Miller to help serve as examples on and off the court….

Through his one notable misstep thus far, Okafor might inspire the necessary change in Philadelphia. Having seasoned players around won’t prevent kids from making mistakes altogether, but the TMZ video should serve as a reminder that the long-term development of the 76ers might be enhanced if a chaperone or two were around to help the youngsters deal with getting their heads beat in.

Boston police say no investigation planned into Jahlil Okafor fight


BOSTON (AP) — Boston police say they do not plan to investigate an apparent nightclub scuffle involving Philadelphia 76ers center Jahlil Okafor unless someone involved comes forward to say they were the victim of a crime.

Officer James Kenneally said Friday that police responded to reports of a fight outside the nightclub hours after the winless Sixers lost to the Boston Celtics on Wednesday night. But Kenneally says the participants were gone by the time officers arrived and nobody was arrested or charged.

TMZ posted cellphone video of the altercation on Thursday, showing Okafor yelling and later shoving a man. The website reports that the confrontation started when someone taunted the 76ers. Philadelphia has 16 losses and is the only team in the NBA without a win.

An agent for the No. 3 pick in the 2015 draft did not immediately return a message Friday seeking comment. The 76ers declined comment.

Philadelphia plays at Houston on Friday night.

Jason Kidd suspended one game for slapping ball away from ref


Mike Budenholzer – to the dismay of someavoided suspension for making contact with a referee.

Jason Kidd sure wasn’t.


NBA release:

Milwaukee Bucks head coach Jason Kidd has been suspended one game without pay for aggressively pursuing and confronting a game official, slapping the ball out of his hands, and not leaving the court in a timely manner upon his ejection, it was announced today by Kiki VanDeWeghe, Executive Vice President, Basketball Operations.

The incident, for which Kidd was assessed a technical foul and ejected, occurred with 1:49 remaining in the fourth quarter of Milwaukee’s 129-118 loss to the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday, Nov. 25 at BMO Harris Bradley Center.

Kidd will serve his suspension tonight when the Bucks play the Orlando Magic at Amway Center.

One game is a standard suspension for bumping an official, and it’s probably what Kidd deserved (what Budenholzer deserved, too, for what it’s worth).

But slapping the ball from a ref’s hands looks so much worse than a standard bump. Kidd should feel fortunate the NBA suspended him on the merit of the action rather than perception of it.

Steve Kerr: Luke Walton not being credited with W-L record ‘the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard’

Luke Walton

The Warriors have surged to a 16-0 start with interim coach Luke Walton, as Steve Kerr is out after a bad reaction to his offseason back surgery.

Walton’s coaching record: 0-0.

Per NBA policy, the 16 wins are credited to Kerr.

Ethan Sherwood Strauss of ESPN:

Kerr and Walton are engaged in a brutal war of deferential humility. To hear Walton tell it, he’s just a functionary, carrying out Kerr’s well-laid plans. To hear Kerr tell it, Walton deserves all the credit.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” Kerr told when asked about getting all of Walton’s wins. “I’m sitting in the locker room and watching the games on TV, and I’m not even traveling to most of the road games. Luke’s doing all the work with the rest of the staff. Luke is 15-0 right now. I’m not. So it’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, to be honest with you. I don’t even understand it.”

Walton expresses no angst over being winless, saying of Kerr, “Steve’s done a lot for me. It’s the least I can do to add a couple wins on his total for him with all he’s done for me.”

This is purely an academic argument. It doesn’t really matter which coach gets the wins.

But we care about records in sports, so it is important to get this right. Personally, I think Walton should get credit. He’s the head coach for these games.

The biggest counterargument is that Kerr is still involved, which is true. But he’s involved on a level more in line with an assistant. Several people are involved in a team’s coaching for every game. Only the head coach gets the win or loss on his record.

The Warriors have designated Walton their head coach. He should get the wins.

The biggest hindrance in changing the policy is probably retroactively altering other coaches’ records. Specifically, Don Nelson is the all-time wins leader with just three more than Lenny Wilkins. But the Mavericks went 10-4 in 2004-05 while coached by Avery Johnson as Nelson attended to health issues, both his own and his wife’s. Nelson stepped down for good later in the season, and Johnson’s 16-2 finish goes to Johnson. But Johnson’s first 14 games as acting head coach are credited to Nelson. Does the NBA want to revoke Nelson’s wins record over this?

So, this issue is bigger than the Warriors.

For them, the key facts much simpler. An undefeated team has two people fighting to credit the other for its success.

Whomever officially gets the wins, this is a healthy organization.