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.

Bucking trend, NBA television ratings up both nationally, locally

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Traditional television ratings are down across the board — in sports, but also in dramas and comedies and just about every other category across the board. More and more people are cutting the cord, and even for people who still pay for cable/satellite, there are countless more options and streaming choices like Netflix that divide the marketplace. That’s why the people trying to pin the NFL’s rating declines on political issues miss the point — America’s most powerful sports league is not immune to market trends.

The NBA, however, is bucking the trend.

From The Business Sports Journal.

Nationally, NBA games on ABC, ESPN, NBA TV and TNT are showing double-digit viewership increases. The combined 15 percent jump puts the league’s TV viewership at its best mark heading into All-Star weekend since the 2012-13 season.

Locally, regional sports networks are seeing a 7 percent increase in ratings so far this season. SportsBusiness Journal analyzed ratings data for 27 U.S.-based teams across the NBA. Seventeen RSNs showed increases; 10 posted decreases. Information for Memphis, Utah and Toronto was not available…

Overall, local NBA games on NBC Sports’ RSNs have seen a 16 percent jump this season. NBA games on Fox’s RSNs are up 5 percent.

The NBC regional sports networks are seeing a massive boost in part because of Boston, which has seen an 82 percent jump in ratings this season.

This is good news for the NBA, which recently signed a massive new television deal with its primary partners, ESPN/ABC and Turner Broadcasting.

Why the increase? Likely a number of factors. One, the NBA has a strong crop of young stars — and those stars are engaging fans on social media. The NBA also embraced technology and other media in a way other sports did not — you can see any NBA highlight you want on YouTube, try that with the NFL. The NBA was more willing to change with the times, but that still doesn’t fully explain why a sport with a younger demographic — more cord cutters — is seeing its ratings rise.

Anthony Davis on Pelicans if Cousins healthy: “We go to the Finals”

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On January 27, the Pelicans were 27-21 and had won seven-of-eight (including just beating the Houston Rockets), and they were solidly in as the six seed in the West. They looked like a solid playoff team in the West, and with Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins they were going to be a tough matchup in the first round.

Jan. 27 was also the day it became official that Cousins had torn his Achilles and was done for the season.

It leads to a lot of “what ifs” in New Orleans. During All-Star weekend ESPN’s Rachel Nichols asked Anthony Davis about that and he was more optimistic than most.

“We could have gone through the playoffs. No one could really stop us as bigs. We go to the Finals if we went,” Davis told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols in an interview over All-Star weekend.

“[Teammate Rajon Rondo] reminds us of it: ‘You guys are the two best bigs. I know what it takes to win championships; we got it.'”

Two quick thoughts here. First, no the Pelicans were not contenders. Second, I want Davis to think like this, to say this if I’m a Pelicans fan or in Pelicans management. The best players always think they can find a way to win.

The big question around the Pelicans now is how the Cousins injury impacts the future of GM Dell Demps and coach Alvin Gentry. Those two were under a mandate to make the playoffs or a housecleaning was coming, and they were clearing that bar before a catastrophic injury. Are they both back now? Neither? There are rumors out of the Big Easy they are leaning toward keeping Demps but dumping Gentry, however, it’s still unclear.

Also unclear, how much do the Pelicans re-sign Cousins for (they will) and for how many years? It’s going to be a hot summer in New Orleans one way or another.

Stephen Curry would love to captain Team Stephen again in 2019

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Stephen Curry would love to be an NBA All-Star Game captain again next year, especially since the game will be in his hometown of Charlotte.

LeBron James would be OK with someone else taking his place, depending on who the top two vote-getters are, although his draft prowess led to Team LeBron beating Team Stephen 148-145 Sunday night.

And there’s a definite appetite for the NBA to televise the captains’ draft rather than conduct it clandestinely like it was this year.

“Televise it,” said DeMar DeRozan of Team Stephen. “Give the people what they want to see. I think everybody wants to see it. At the end of the day, every single person that gets picked, you are an All-Star, so it doesn’t matter where you really go, so I think televise it.”

Players raved about the new format of having captains draft the teams rather than the traditional format of East vs. West.

And James finally revealed his draft order: Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, his former Cleveland teammate Kyrie Irving and DeMarcus Cousins, who missed the game due to a season-ending injury.

“I know who I like watching and I had a draft board. I had a process,” James said. “Some of it went according to plan. A couple of them fell through, but I was satisfied and happy with the guys that I got.”

James’ original roster was dramatically altered by injuries to Cousins, John Wall, Kristaps Porzingis and Kevin Love, who all missed the game.

“Even with the four guys that got injured we were able to get four new guys that came in and played well for us.”

James was named the game’s MVP after making the go-ahead, finger-roll layup with 34.5 seconds left and scoring a game-high 29 points.

Where did he hide his draft board?

“Ain’t none of your business. You’re going too far, man,” James said with a laugh.

Curry didn’t divulge his draft order.

“As the draft kind of unfolded, you start to game plan around positions,” he said. “For me, I tried to get the best shooters. It was kind of cool to see both teams come together as me and LeBron were picking. So that part, that vibe of the format and having two guys select from your peers will be a fun show as it unfolds year after year.”

The All-Star draft led to interesting dynamics on court.

Curry chose his Golden State teammates Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, but the trio had to play against Durant. James also chose Oklahoma City duo Westbrook and Paul George to play along with Kyrie Irving, who forced a trade away from James in Cleveland just last summer.

Irving and James had no obvious friction, even laughing and joking on the bench. Neither did Durant and Westbrook, who broke up in 2016 when Durant left Oklahoma City for Golden State.

Durant helped James smother Curry in the final seconds to prevent him from getting off a potential tying shot.

And then there was Toronto’s Dwane Casey coaching Team LeBron against Raptors star DeRozan.

“I think that having the captains and selecting the guys and being able to mix them up gave it a more authentic feel of kind of what us players want to be part of in an All-Star Game,” Irving said.

“It’s great to play with guys in your conference, East-West. But when you get a chance to have Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and you know they’re teammates already, and then you mix them with myself and Kemba (Walker), and LeBron, and you could see the mix and it just worked.”

 

Will Sam Hinkie ever be an NBA GM again?

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The buzz around the NBA is that Sam Hinkie would like to get back in the game. He’s a bright guy who is teaching graduate business classes at Stanford, he’s investing in and helping some startups in the Silicon Valley. Like smart people in every walk of life, NBA GMs have interests outside of just their profession. Hinkie can live a very good life outside the NBA world if he so chooses, but the buzz is he wants back in.

Will a team let him?

Ric Bucher of Bleacher Report asked other executives about the potential of a Hinkie return, in a story about his legacy. There was caution.

One owner of an Eastern Conference team said (Hinkie’s 13-page, esoteric resignation) letter—which was not intended to be shared publicly—damaged Hinkie’s chances of being hired to run a franchise again as much as anything he did while with the Sixers. Still, sources both close to Hinkie and around the league said owners and executives routinely reach out to him for counsel. Several basketball operations vice presidents and owners said they would hire him, but they wouldn’t put him in charge.

Others believe Hinkie and The Process weren’t given a full trial, and that he didn’t do anything wrong as much as the league turned on him.

“They clearly changed the rules on Sam,” the longtime front office executive said. “That wasn’t all on him. If he lasts five more months, maybe it all looks different and he is given credit for what they’re doing now.”…

“Once you stockpiled all those talented players, was Sam capable of flipping the switch and becoming a real GM?” the second Western Conference GM asked. “Because you don’t hire the demolitionist to do the remodel. Those are two different jobs with two different skill sets.”

Hinkie gamed the system in Philadelphia — with ownership’s blessing, at first. Until the pressure from the league and other owners, and the weight of the losses, became too much. Jerry Colangelo came in and the writing was on the wall for Hinkie and “The Process.” Every team has “tanked” to improve draft position and gain financial flexibility at some point, but nobody was as naked and extreme in their ambitions as Hinkie’s 76ers. Most Sixers fans seemed to get it, but other owners didn’t like what it said about the business of the NBA.

The Process also worked — Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz (who has yet to play but will make a difference) have the Sixers as an on-the-rise team that makes the playoffs this year. Whether they get there depends on Embiid’s health and if the right players can be put around them, but he started a process that works.

At some point, I expect a team will give Hinkie another shot, a team near the bottom of the standings in a smaller market with an owner ready to gamble. It may be, as the one executive suggested, Hinkie in some kind of executive role setting the tone while another “GM” handles the day-to-day and relationships, but I expect Hinkie will get his shot. He learned some lessons the first time around, and his model in Philly is not one size fits all (especially with the draft lottery changes that kick in for 2019).  But he deserves another turn in the big chair somewhere.