NBA Playoff Preview: Boston vs. New York

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SEASON RECORDS
Celtics: 56-26 (No. 3 seed)
Knicks: 42-40 (No. 6 seed)

SEASON SERIES
Celtics sweep 4-0, but know that two games were in December and one was a meaningless game played largely by substitutes on the last night of the season. So, three of the four have no real bearing on the playoff games about to start.

KEY INJURIES
Celtics: Shaquille O’Neal, expected to play and start but has played 6 minutes since Feb. 1 due to Achilles and a calf strain; Delonte West missed time with sprained ankle but should be available.
Knicks: no significant injuries

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKING (points per 100 possession)
Celtics: Off. 104.4 (16th in NBA); Def. 97.7 (2nd in NBA)
Knicks: Off. 108.2 (7th in NBA); Def. 107.1 (22nd in NBA)

THREE KEY CELTICS:

Rajon Rondo: He has just not been himself in recent weeks — Rondo has been shooting a little more, passing a little less and the result is a sticky Celtics offense. Part of that has been funky Celtics lineups as they rest their key players for the playoffs, but part of it is just Rondo being off. Expect him to get back to form — like the other Celtic veterans he knows what is required — but if he doesn’t there will be issues.

Shaquille O’Neal: This series is not where Shaq is really needed, it is the next one, and all the subsequent ones. But Shaq needs to use this series to get some conditioning and his flow back. The lineup of Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Shaq was the second best in basketball among five-man units that played more than 200 minutes. They will need that lineup to give them 20 minutes a night in the future, they need to get it back in a groove in this series.

Paul Pierce: The most entertaining matchup of this series is Garnett on Stoudemire, but that is not where the mismatch is. Pierce will have Carmelo Anthony on him and needs to exploit Anthony’s “defense” or at least make him work much harder on that end of the floor, taking away some energy from his offense. Pierce has been the one Celtic playing better than his season averages the last 10 games (21.4 points a game on 51.6 percent shooting and 42.5 percent from three). He could continue those kinds of numbers this series.

THREE KEY KNICKS

Carmelo Anthony: They are going to need him to provide a lot of offense — Amar’e Stoudemire will get some but Kevin Garnett does a good job traditionally of slowing him down. Lately Anthony has been providing plenty of scoring, averaging more than 30 points a game. The real challenge is that Anthony’s preferred mode of offense — isolation from the wing — plays right into the hands of the Celtics defense. He is going to have to get inside and draw some fouls, and he has to hit contested shots.

Ronny Turiaf: One thing the Knicks have not had this season is a consistent intimidating defensive and rebounding presence in the paint. Turiaf, who has battled through injuries (as he seems to every year) is the best option they have for that. And he is their best chance against Shaq. What we do know is that Turiaf will bring some serious heart and energy to the table.

Chauncey Billups: If there is one Knick who could steal a game, who could get hot and make some plays, it is Billups. He has to keep Rondo in his offensive funk, make Rondo really work on defense and find a way to get his teammates some easy buckets against the Celtics defense. The Knicks need to run some, not let the Celtics get set, and that is where Billups comes in.

OUTLOOK

This is the series where a lot of people see a potential upset. And the Knicks have a couple guys capable of just taking over and dominating a game and stealing one almost singlehandedly. But even with its recent struggles the Celtics defense is still formidable and what the Knicks do — pick-and-rolls, Anthony in isolation — plays to the strengths of that Celtics defense. The Knicks are going to have to play better defense than they have most of the season, because if Rondo starts dishing and Ray Allen starts hitting the Knicks are going to struggle to keep up.

 

PREDICTION

These are going to be some entertaining games, with the full force of two cities that can’t stand each other behind them. But in the end, in the final minutes, it will be the Celtics execution that outdoes the Knicks individual players.

Celtics in 6.

Tim Hardaway Jr.’s reported reaction to Knicks’ $71 million offer: ‘Man, that’s crazy’

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Knicks acting (now long-term) front-office leader Steve Mills signing Tim Hardaway Jr. to a four-year, $71 million offer sheet shocked some within the Knicks.

It also apparently shocked someone who wasn’t (yet) with New York – Hardaway himself.

Pablo Torre on ESPN:

I was talking to somebody who would know about the Tim Hardaway Jr. scenario. Tim Hardaway Jr.’s first words after signing that contract: “Man, that’s crazy.”

In the likely event Hardaway doesn’t live up to this massive contract, he’ll get blamed – and the scorn will be hotter in New York.* That’s not fair, as Hardaway was just taking the money offered to him. He wasn’t getting anywhere near that much anywhere else. But it is reality.

*It’s a lesson Kyrie Irving, who could land anywhere, could stand to remember as he reportedly hopes for the Knicks to trade for him.

As hilarious as Hardaway’s response was, it doesn’t top Tyler Johnson for my favorite reaction to a loaded offer sheet.

Report: As Kyrie Irving rumors swirl, Timberwolves still negotiating extension with Andrew Wiggins

AP Photo/Jim Mone
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The Timberwolves were working on a contract extension for Andrew Wiggins.

Then, Kyrie Irving‘s trade request became public. He reportedly listed Minnesota among his preferred destinations. Jimmy Butler (a friend of Irving’s) and Karl-Anthony Towns have petitioned Timberwolves management to add Irving, and the team is exploring a deal. Wiggins fits perfectly what Cleveland is said to be seeking.

So, where do extension talks stand now?

Darren Wolfson of

The Timberwolves could simultaneously be exploring multiple paths. They might want to trade for Irving, even if it means including Wiggins. They might want an extension lined up with Wiggins in case they don’t. They’re not committed to either direction until they finalize something.

They’re not even committed to keeping Wiggins if they extend him.

It’d complicate an Irving trade, to be sure. Wiggins outgoing salary would still count as his actual salary ($7,574,323), but his incoming salary to Cleveland would count as the average annual salary of the entire deal – the final season of his rookie-scale contract and the extension years both included.

But there’s no time period after signing Wiggins to a rookie-scale extension where the Timberwolves would be prohibited from trading him. He could also sign an extension with the Cavs anytime between a trade and Oct. 16. Minnesota might be assessing Wiggins’ extension demands on behalf of Cleveland, which would surely be interested in extending him in accordance with a trade.

If the Timberwolves actually sign Wiggins to an extension, that’d send a big signal they don’t plan to trade him for Irving – but even that wouldn’t be a deal-breaker. Until a deal becomes official or more concrete word leaks of Minnesota’s plan, I wouldn’t assume a Wiggins-for-Irving deal is off the table.

Report: Kyrie Irving ‘very badly’ wants trade to Knicks

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Kyrie Irving, who grew up in New Jersey, listed the Knicks among his preferred destinations in a trade.

Is New York his top choice?

Pablo Torre on ESPN:

I got a phone call, and the voice on the other end of that phone call is a trustworthy person. And he was saying to me that Kyrie Irving very badly wants to be a New York Knick. Kyrie Irving wants to come home.

Irving is less valuable than Kristaps Porzingis and more valuable than Carmelo Anthony, and the Knicks can’t easily bridge either gap. They reportedly won’t trade Porzingis for Irving, a wise move. Anthony – who possesses a no-trade clause – is reportedly set on the Rockets. An Irving trade would almost certainly have to be centered around one of those two players.

Maybe Cleveland can work its way into a multi-team trade with Anthony going to Houston, but it’s unclear where the assets the Cavs are seeking would come from.

When Irving requested a trade, he should have known he’d lose control of the process. Locked up for two more years and without a no-trade clause, Irving has minimal sway. His relationship with the Cavaliers looks increasingly unworkable, but they could deal him anywhere.

That said, I can see why he’d want to go to New York – big market in his home area, a team he could take over. Even as Porzingis grows in stature, he’s not a ball-dominant player who’d step on Irving’s toes.

But this just feels like a Stephon Marbury redux. From owner James Dolan down, the Knicks are poorly run, and their stars – beloved when welcomed – usually leave with their reputations damaged.

By the way, what happened to the Spurs being Irving’s top choice? In a situation like this, sometimes people close to the player have differing preferences and leak accordingly. That could have just been someone near Irving pushing for his or her choice for the guard – and this could be, too.

If players thought this year’s free agent market was tight, next summer could be “nuclear winter”

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Plenty of agents spent this summer trying to explain to their clients that the summer of 2017 was not the summer of 2016 (one I know of even was thanking media members in Las Vegas who wrote about how tight the free agent market had gotten so he could show his clients). Players saw the ridiculous contracts of 2016 — Timofey Mozgov got four-years, $64 million; Bismack Biyombo got four years, almost $70 million; and that’s just the tip of the iceberg, players deep into rosters were overpaid — and thought this summer it would be their turn.

Except it wasn’t. In 2016 the salary cap spiked from $70 million to $94 million and that meant 27 teams entered free agency under the cap (and the teams over it spent big to re-sign their own), and $5 billion in contracts were handed out. This summer, 14 teams were under the $99 million cap and about $3 billion was handed out — and once the stars such as James Harden got paid big, the market dried up and players got less than expected. Four-time All-Star and elite defender Paul Millsap would have been a clear max a year ago, he could “only” get three years (at age 31) at $4 million less than his max. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope would have been a lock max in 2016, he signed a one-year deal with the Lakers for $18 million this summer. And further down the list guys like Rajon Rondo are signing team-friendly deals.

And next summer is going to be a far tighter market. As Tim MacMahon and Bobby Marks of ESPN point out, the free agent class of 2018 is going to pay for the excess of 2016.

The early projections for 2018-19: nine teams with cap space, and potentially 10 teams paying luxury tax.

“The real story is the nuclear winter for free agents coming next year,” one team executive with authority to make personnel decisions told ESPN. “Teams planned the last two summers for the cap to be much higher. The fact that it went way down from the projections crushed teams.”

Another general manager put it this way to ESPN:

“What I see all the time is players not understanding why, ‘This player got this, but I get that?’ They want it to make sense and it just doesn’t make sense. I think you’ll see a lot of agents get fired.

“The top guys will always feed first and then the year of the cap spike, there was a lot left for everybody else to feed. Next year, the top players will still get theirs, and then there will be not much left.”

NBA teams are not going to negotiate deals off the mistakes of 2016, they see that as the outlier to be ignored.

The Summer of 2018 is loaded with top free agents who are going to get max contract offers from their own teams and those with enough cap space to try and poach them — LeBron James, Kevin Durant (he will re-sign with Warriors), Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Chris Paul, DeMarcus Cousins, plus restricted guys who could see max deals such as Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic. There’s even a second tier of guys who will be maxed out or close to it — Andrew Wiggins (extension eligible right now), DeAndre Jordan, Isaiah Thomas, and others.

But that next tier down? How much will teams pay for Robert Covington? Aaron Gordon? Clint Capela? Kentavious Caldwell-Pope? Danny Green? And for guys counting on the one-year deals they signed this summer to boost their stock — we can use Derrick Rose as an example — even if they play well they may not see the money they expect.

The league and owners had wanted to smooth in the salary cap spike of 2016, raising it fair amount over three or five years to avoid the spending spree, but the players’ union rejected that idea. For the free agents in the summer of 2016 that worked out well. For the ones in the 2018… not so much.