Dallas Mavericks v Washington Wizards

How they can win it all: The Dallas Mavericks

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Of all of this year’s contending teams, the Dallas Mavericks are perhaps the most improbable champions. Their trials begin in the first round, as the Mavs are rewarded for winning the West’s No. 3 seed with a tough matchup against the Portland Trailblazers. Should they take care of business against Portland, Dallas would likely have to fight through Los Angeles, followed by either San Antonio or Oklahoma City, only to meet perhaps their fiercest competition yet in the NBA Finals. The road to a title is a tough one for any team, but even more so for Dallas; the Mavs just don’t have the statistical résumé of their contending contemporaries, making them the underdog in pretty much every series beyond the first round (or possibly even in the first round, depending on who you ask).

Still, Dallas didn’t win 57 games by some fluke, and they aren’t merely referred to as contenders just to create cross-Conference symmetry. At various points in the season, the Mavs played at a championship-worthy level on both ends of the court. They just need to tap into what it is that made them great earlier in the year. We know Dallas is capable, even if they didn’t play their best basketball in the final weeks of the regular season; here’s how the Mavs can turn that capability into their first ever NBA title:

1. Align a productive offense with an effective defense

Dallas began the 2010-2011 campaign as a highly effective defensive team with a struggling offense, transitioned into a highly effective defensive team with a fairly efficient offense, became a middling team rendered powerless by injuries, and then settled in as an inconsistent defensive team with an efficient offense. It’s been an interesting ride, to say the least.

Yet all of the ingredients are there for the Mavs. They’ve shown they can lock down on D, and their latest successes have come by way of efficient scoring. They just need to find a way to play solid basketball on both ends at the same time, something the Mavs haven’t really been able to do for a significant stretch all season. Caron Butler’s absence certainly makes things far more difficult than they could have been, but this is the hand Dallas was dealt. It’s up to those healthy enough to play to return to the root of their early season success without compromising the integrity of their offense — a tall order, but hardly impossible.

2. Get the most out of Rodrigue Beaubois

Even though the defensive end has been more problematic for the Mavs of late, a shot in the arm on offense couldn’t hurt. Theoretically, that’s where we could throw in an “Enter Rodrigue Beaubois,” but the second-year guard clearly has no sense of theatrical timing. Beaubois made his long-awaited return from a lingering foot injury soon after Caron Butler had been ruled out for the remainder of the regular season, a fortunate development for a Maverick team in need of Beaubois’ offensive skills. Yet since returning, Beaubois has been largely underwhelming; while slotted at either guard position, Beaubois has wobbled between being overly tentative to trying to force the action. That inability to find a stable middle ground may have cost Beaubois a spot in the rotation for the playoffs, too, as Rick Carlisle opted to remove the erratic — but intriguing — guard from the starting lineup for the Mavs’ final regular season game.

Still, Carlisle will have to reverse course in desperation if the Mavs aren’t able to revive their depressed defense. Beaubois still has the potential to be a series changer if he can center himself, and Dallas will likely need him to bring tangible offensive benefit if they’re to go on a deep playoff run. Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion have become the only stable scorers in the Mavs’ rotation, and if Beaubois could balance the struggles of Jason Terry or Jason Kidd with a productive outing once in awhile, it could go a long way toward relieving Nowitzki and Marion from excessive defensive pressure.

3. Keep Tyson Chandler on the floor

Brendan Haywood and Ian Mahinmi are a fairly strong tandem as far as reserve centers go, but Tyson Chandler is just on another level in terms of his defensive impact. The reason Dallas was able to make such a substantial improvement on defense early in the season was mostly due to Chandler’s timely rotations; though Haywood and Mahinmi make honest attempts to protect the rim, neither is Chandler’s peer in regard to their ability to slide over and contest penetration. The difference between having Chandler in the lineup and either Haywood or Mahinmi is statistically palpable; not only are the Mavs 3.37 points per 100 possessions better on defense with Chandler in the game, but a more thorough look at their performance reveals that Dallas’ worst defensive showings coincide with Chandler’s lowest minute totals.

Rick Carlisle isn’t keeping Chandler’s minutes low by choice; because of his defensive role and physical style, Chandler tends to pick up fouls rather quickly. It’s essential that he avoids cheap, unnecessary fouls that would limit his playing time in the postseason, because the Mavs just aren’t the same defensive team without him on the court. However, it may also be prudent for Carlisle to be slightly less rigid in his approach toward Chandler’s fouls. In order to maximize his center’s minutes and effectiveness, it may not always be wise to pull him from the game, even when he picks up two personals in the first quarter or three in the first half. After all, doing so only creates an artificial cap on Chandler’s minutes when there needn’t be one.

The double-whammy: Chandler is also a far more useful offensive player than Haywood and Mahinmi, as he’s able to do both the little things (set better screens, catch the ball on the perimeter without being flustered) and the major things (convert offensive rebounds, finish alley-oops, hit the occasional elbow jumper) to facilitate the offense better than his center teammates. With that kind of two-way impact, foul trouble in a game or two could potentially turn a series. Dallas’ margin for error will be small even in the first round, and there’s no way the Mavs can live up to their potential with Chandler on the bench.

Will Kevin Durant leave Thunder? Other teams reportedly believe decision hinges on Spurs series

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) walks up court during the first half in Game 1 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series as San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) looks on, Saturday, April 30, 2016, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
AP Photo/Eric Gay
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There’s plenty at stake in this Spurs-Thunder series already.

The winner advances to the Western Conference finals – an accomplishment in itself – likely to face the Warriors, who still haven’t gotten Stephen Curry back.

But this second round matchup could also prove instrumental in whether Durant stays in Oklahoma City or bolts – maybe to San Antonio.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

As well as Durant and his close-knit tandem of representatives, Rich Kleiman and Charlie Bell, have done in terms of keeping their intentions mysterious, there is a working assumption among KD’s would-be suitors that a second-round Thunder exit essentially cinches the notion that he’ll indeed walk away and look for the best external situation that positions him to win that elusive first championship.

The theory (stress: theory) also holds that OKC success in this round against the 67-win Spurs would be enough, no matter what happens in a presumed Western Conference finals showdown with the Warriors, to convince Durant, at the very least, to sign a new two-year deal with Oklahoma City ‎that contains a player option for Year 2.

Durant has already denied a report he’ll leave the Thunder if they don’t reach the NBA Finals. It’s never that cut and dry for a free agent.

But the Thunder’s success is works in their favor, and seeing that come undone right in front of his eyes could push Durant out of Oklahoma City. Likewise, seeing the Thunder win could convince Durant of his current team’s potential.

I don’t know whether Durant will re-sign if the Thunder advance and leave if they don’t. But if I’m Oklahoma City or San Antonio, I’d sure want to win to tip the odds toward my favor.

Four Things to Watch in Playoffs Friday: Can LaMarcus Aldridge get some scoring help

San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) runs up court during the first half in Game 2 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday, May 2, 2016, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
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Kentucky Derby pick? I’ll take Outwork, I think the lack of early speed in this race will favor the frontrunners, who will hold off the Nyquist led charge. Oh, and here is some basketball stuff for Friday night.

1) LaMarcus Aldridge will get his, what about the rest of the Spurs? Oklahoma City’s defensive strategy in Game 2 started with more aggressive, more disruptive pick-and-roll coverage (the Thunder effort was much better than Game 1).  The Spurs responded by getting the ball to LaMarcus Aldridge, both in the post and on the pop, and it worked to the tune of 41 points for the All-Star forward.

Oklahoma City can live with that. In leaning so heavily on Aldridge in an isolation set the Spurs ball movement went away, the spacing got off, and the Spurs weren’t getting the same open looks by making the extra pass. San Antonio played isolation basketball too often, not just with Aldridge. The Thunder would be happy with a repeat of that offensive outing, but Gregg Popovich was clearly, understandably less thrilled with the outcome. Expect a more balanced Spurs offense — if Aldridge is north of 35 points again Friday it’s not necessarily a good sign for them.

2) Oklahoma City needs to keep running — and take care of the ball this time. Game 2 was played at a faster pace than Game 1 — San Antonio’s early missed shots (2-of-15 to start the game) let the Thunder show off their superior athleticism in the open court. It happened a few times throughout the game, leading to Thunder scoring runs, and the Spurs would be back to digging out of a hole. The Thunder need to replicate that pace on Friday night — and turn the ball over less while doing so. OKC had 18 turnovers in Game 2 (18.5 percent of their possessions) and if they make those kinds of mistakes again the Spurs will make them pay for it.

3) Expect a better defensive effort from Atlanta. Clearly there was a snowball rolling down a mountain effect in Game 2, where the Cavaliers confidence grew as the three balls started to fall and pretty soon the momentum was nearly unstoppable. But there also was a lot of indifference from Hawk defenders about the arc in that game — rather than whine about all the threes the Cavs took after the game, go out there and stop them from shooting them. The Cavaliers are not likely to be that hot shooting from deep again, but also expect a much better defensive effort from the Hawks — they should be embarrassed and now will be in front of their home fans.

4) Can Al Horford and Paul Millsap get going at home? Millsap is 10-of-27 from two-point range through two games in this series (but hitting 40 percent of his threes). Horford is 7-of-20 from two and 5-of-16 from three. The Cavaliers have had those two struggling in the paint and daring them to beat them with jumpers, especially long twos. Millsap and Horford need to knock down these jumpers or the Hawks stand zero chance of a comeback this series.

Beyond those two, this applies to all the Hawks starters — they have been crushed by the Cavs starting five this series. The Hawks need for that to change back home.

Steve Kerr: Stephen Curry out for Game 3, ‘maybe a slight chance’ of playing in Game 4

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, left, and head coach Steve Kerr react during the first half in Game 1 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, May 1, 2016. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
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Stephen Curry said there was a “pretty good” chance he’d play in Game 3 of the Warriors-Trail Blazers series on Saturday.

Steve Kerr said Curry would probably sit.

The coach was right.

Kerr, via The Dan Patrick Show

He hasn’t practiced with us yet. So, Game 3 tomorrow, he’s not going to play. He’s getting better every day, but until he’s out on the floor with our team and scrimmaging and we’re seeing him move, and trainers say it’s a go, we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing. But no way tomorrow, and I would say maybe a slight chance on Monday if he gets great work in the next few days.

Even if the Warriors lose in Portland tomorrow, they’d still lead the series 2-1. Golden State has looked like the better team through two games, and with Curry in its back pocket just in case things get tight, advancing seems likely.

As long as they Warriors keep talking around the same return date, there’s no reason to panic. They need Curry healthy for the conference finals or if this series gets tight.

So far, it’s not, so Curry can continue to heal.

Jazz extend Quin Snyder’s contract

Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder speaks with reporters during the Jazz's end-of-season media availability Thursday, April 14, 2016, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
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The Jazz hired Quin Snyder in 2014, reportedly giving him a contract that ran through next season with guaranteed salaries and contained a team option for 2017-18.

Utah wants to keep him around even longer.

Jazz release:

The Utah Jazz announced today a long-term contract extension for third-year head coach Quin Snyder. Per team policy, financial terms were not released.

“With this contract extension, we are declaring our confidence in Coach Snyder’s ability to continue to develop the Utah Jazz into a championship team,” said Gail Miller, owner of the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies. “The Miller family recognizes the significant progress made under his leadership and we are excited about the direction we are headed.”

“Our relationship with Quin, and this extension, reflect our shared passion for building a championship team,” said Steve Starks, president of the Utah Jazz. “With long-term contracts now in place for Quin, Dennis and other key front office personnel, we are well-positioned for the future.”

“We have continued to take significant steps as a team under Quin’s direction,” said Jazz General Manager Dennis Lindsey. “His work ethic, basketball intelligence and ability to connect with and develop our players make him the ideal head coach of the Jazz.”

“I am very grateful for this gesture by the Miller family and the Utah Jazz and appreciative of their belief in me to continue to lead this team,” Snyder said. “Amy and I are fortunate to be a part of a franchise and family that cares deeply for our community, stays true to its values and is committed to winning. More than anything, it is confirmation of our collective commitment to building a championship team.”

Snyder has done a nice job in Utah.

Despite a young roster and some ill-fitting pieces (namely Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors offensively), the Jazz have gone 38-44 and 40-42 under Snyder. Player development looks good, and the defense has been top notch.

At some point, the goal must become snapping a four-year playoff drought – the franchise’s longest since its first four seasons in Utah. But Snyder has the team on the right track, and the Jazz are already winning at a fine clip given their circumstances. He deserves a chance to see this through.

Gobert, Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward, Favors, Dante Exum, Trey Lyles and Alec Burks – who are all already signed for next season (and, in some cases, beyond) – give the Jazz a bright future.

So does Snyder.