NBA Playoff Preview: San Antonio vs. Memphis

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SEASON RECORDS
Spurs: 61-21 (No. 1 seed)
Grizzlies: 46-36 (No. 8 seed)

SEASON SERIES
Tied: 2-2, with each team winning both games on their home court. Tony Parker missed one of the Spurs losses, Tim Duncan the other.

KEY INJURIES
Spurs: Manu Ginobili, the two guard from Argentina that is key to the Spurs chances injured his elbow two minutes into the final game of the season and did not return, an MRI Thursday will let us know the severity and time missed.
Grizzlies: Tony Allen, he missed the last two games of the regular season with a sore and swollen knee, but he will go for the playoffs; Rudy Gay, the best perimeter player on the Grizzlies, will miss the entire playoffs with shoulder surgery; Xavier Henry, the rookie backup two guard, has had knee problems and is out for the playoffs; Jason Williams, the backup point guard, is out for the season with back problems.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKING (points per 100 possessions)
Spurs: Off. 109.4 (2nd in NBA); 102.8 (11th in NBA)
Grizzlies: Off. 104.4 (16th in NBA); 102.5 (8th in NBA)

THREE KEY SPURS

Manu Ginobili: He would be on this list if he was 100 percent healthy, but after injuring his elbow in the last game of the regular season he is at the top of the list. The Spurs have modified their offensive attack this season to not focus as much around Tim Duncan in the post and rather have Ginobili and Tony Parker more the decision makers out on the perimeter. There are few guys who can penetrate like Ginobili, and when he does he’s a crafty, willing passer who sets up teammates as much as he takes his own shot. They need him and his health matters.

Tim Duncan: Okay, he’s not the focus of the offense anymore, but he is still central to what they do on defense (and he’s still scoring 13.4 points per game on 50 percent shooting, it’s not like he dropped off the face of the earth). In this series his defense will be key — he will get a lot of time on Zach Randolph and while he’s not going to stop him Duncan has to slow him. Part of that is making Randolph work on the defensive end (or if he chooses not to work, to exploit the mismatch). Look for Duncan to get a lot of touches.

DeJuan Blair: He is the physical enforcer down low for the Spurs, and he’s going to get called on to do a lot of the dirty work by Greg Popovich. The Grizzlies score more points in the paint than any team in the league (51 a game) and the Spurs have to make them work for those points, to not be efficient. Blair and his physical style will be a lot of that.

THREE KEY GRIZZLIES

Zach Randolph: Is there a better low-post scorer in the NBA? If so, not many. The Spurs have size but with Duncan and Antonio McDyess up front they are not young. Randolph had 23 points on 14 shots in the last meeting with the Spurs (with Duncan out) and they are going to need games like that from him again to have a chance.

Tony Allen: He is going to draw the defensive matchup on Manu Ginobili — we’re assuming Ginobili will play in the series at this point — and in that way will be key. The Spurs now focus their attack from their guards and Allen is one of the better perimeter defenders in the league. If he can disrupt Manu, it will put more pressure on Parker and George Hill off the bench. Allen and his teammates need to take away the three ball that has become central to the Spurs attack.

Mike Conley: He has had his best season as a pro, really earning the deal he was given last summer by the Grizzlies. But now he really needs to earn that paycheck. He needs to slow Tony Parker. What’s more, on offense he needs to feed the Grizzlies big men and not turn the ball over — points are not going to be that easy to come by this series and turnovers that lead to easy transition points for the Spurs would make them hard to catch.

OUTLOOK

Inside/outside. Which team can do a better job of taking away the other’s strength? Memphis wants to pound the ball down low — with Randolph they have one of the best low-post scorers in the league, his counterpart Marc Gasol provides another 11.7 points per game (and he has a midrange game you have to respect as well). The Spurs will counter with Tim Duncan, who is no longer the best defensive big man in the league, but he’s not bad, and the physical play of DeJuan Blair and McDyess. Tiago Splitter, who played much better at the end of the season, also will get key minutes.

On the flip side, the Spurs make a league-best 39.7 percent of the threes they take (about 21 a game) and the Grizzlies are not good at defending the three (opponents hit 36.9 percent, 24th best in the league). The Spurs generate a lot of their offense off the pick-and-roll with the ball in the hands of Ginobili and Parker, either with them driving or then kicking out for spot-up looks (almost 25 percent of the Spurs offense is spot-up looks, often those discussed threes). Tony Allen and Shane Battier need to be keys to defending those plays. Memphis has not been great this season at defending the pick-and-roll or closing out on spot-up shooters this season but they have to if they want to advance.

The real key to this series could be depth — San Antonio gets a lot out of George Hill, Gary Neal and Bair off the bench. Can O.J. Mayo match them?

PREDICTION

Memphis is about as tough a 1 vs. 8 matchup as we can recall. They have real strengths inside and are going to be a physical team that will leave bumps and bruises on whoever they face. The Spurs big men are going to have to work hard all series to both defend and secure rebounds.

But in the end, what the Spurs like to do on offense the Grizzlies don’t defend well, and without Rudy Gay the Grizzlies lack the scoring on the wings they really need to compete.

Spurs in 6.

Report: Rockets becoming “increasingly serious threat” to sign Chris Paul

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The Houston Rockets are one of only a handful of teams in the NBA with a legitimate ability to add a couple of key pieces and try to make a run at the Golden State Warriors.

Chris Paul would be that kind of piece, and the Rockets are ramping up efforts to land him.

From Marc Stein of ESPN.

The Houston Rockets have emerged as an increasingly serious threat in the chase for soon-to-be free agent Chris Paul, according to league sources.

The Rockets still have work to do in terms of clearing sufficient salary-cap space to make a representative offer for Paul, but sources told ESPN that Houston star James Harden has been advocating hard in favor of the Paul pursuit and has made his interest in teaming with the Los Angeles Clippers’ point guard known directly to Paul.

Sources say Houston also remains at the heart of the trade hunt to acquire Paul George from the Indiana Pacers, despite the fact George is only under contract through next season and is known to be angling to sign with his hometown Los Angeles Lakers in July 2018.

The challenge in all of this is the Rockets have just about $10 million in cap space this summer, which is about a third of what it will take to land Chris Paul. That means they need to trade Ryan Anderson and his $19.6 million owed next season and take no salary back, and while there are a few teams in a position to be able to take on that salary — Philadephia, Brooklyn, Sacramento and others — they are going to want a young player or first-round pick as a sweetener. The Rockets also are considering moving Lou Williams and his $7 million salary, or Patrick Beverley and his $5.5 million. However, even moving both of the later two is not getting near the salary Paul will demand.

Chris Paul met with the Clippers front office on Tuesday to talk about the future, but he’s expected to meet with a number of teams in free agency, with the Rockets and Spurs being key suitors. The question is, will any of these teams bring him closer to toppling the Golden State Warriors, and is it worth it to take less money for that chance? Especially after he got the CBA changed so that as of July 1 the “over 36” rule becomes the “over 38 rule” so the Clippers can give him one more five-year max contract.

How much will Dion Waiters earn as a free agent?

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Dion Waiters had the best season of his career last year at age 25 in Miami. The Heat pushed Waiters to get in the best shape of his life (just check out his Instagram), and combine that with the fact that Justise Winslow went down Waiters got the ball in his hands more with a chance to create for himself, and you had a little rush of scoring. He’s still not the most efficient player ever (to be kind), but he’s close to average.

Waiters opted out of his $3.2 million he is owed next season, and he is now a free agent. How much is he will he get now on the open market? Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald wrote this:

One scout said he would be surprised if the bidding for Waiters soars much above $10 million, if that, because of his small sample size of high-level play this past season. One prominent agent who does not represent Waiters predicted he would get $8 million to $10 million annually.

That number seems about right, if it’s a two-year deal (or a team option on the third year). The league average salary will be around $8.5 million, and that’s where Waiters should fall next year.

Whether Miami has that money to spend comes down to whether they land a big free agent such as Gordon Hayward or Blake Griffin (both max guys). If so, the Heat will not have the money, and what they do have would be more focused on keeping James Johnson. However, if the Heat strike out then Waiters could be back in Miami.

One way or another Waiters is going to get a raise. That doesn’t mean teams are not still leery.

Report: Knicks have “legitimate” interest in re-signing Derrick Rose

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Were they watching the games last year?

Derrick Rose put up decent numbers last year — 18 points per game, PER of 17, true shooting percentage of 53 — but was a mess defensively and does not fit in the triangle offense. He’s a decent point guard now, a replacement level player who can help in the right system.

Since the Knicks point guard rotation right now consists of rookie Frank Ntilikina plus whoever the team signs this summer, turns out Rose is not out of the picture, reports Ian Begley of ESPN.

The New York Knicks have “legitimate” interest in re-signing Derrick Rose, league sources familiar with the matter said….

The Knicks’ interest in the point guard is dependent on several factors, including his health and his asking price. When asked last week about New York potentially re-signing Rose, team president Phil Jackson said “we’re listening.”

Money will be the key — it’s not going to be anywhere near the $21.3 million Rose made last season. No team is going to offer that.

Can the Knicks get him for less than $10 million? Will another team come in and offer $12 million or more for him? The market for point guards this summer is going to be interesting because after the big name on the free-agent market — Chris Paul (we’re not counting Stephen Curry, he’s not leaving) — there are some quality players out there that can help teams such as Kyle Lowry, Jrue Holiday, George Hill, Patty Mills, Jeff Teague and Shaun Livingston. There aren’t that many teams with money to really spend on free agent point guards, so while a couple (Holiday, maybe Lowry) re-sign with their old teams there are a number of guys who may find the market softer than they expected. Rose is among them.

And that’s where the Knicks come in. Rose is far from a perfect fit, but if the soft market drives his price down closer to the midlevel ($8.4 million) or just above, that may be worth it for the Knicks for a year while they try to develop the rookie.

Report: Russell Westbrook may sign “designated player” extension with Thunder on July 1

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Russell Westbrook is your NBA MVP, coming off a historic season where he averaged a triple-double.

Westbrook also could see a massive pay raise this summer. Yes, you remember correctly that Westbrook signed one last summer after Kevin Durant left, but the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that kicks in July 1 grandfathered him (and James Harden, who also signed an extension last summer) in to get the “designated veteran” max contract. That would start at about $34.7 million (if the cap is at $99 million as expected) and go up from there.

Thunder management’s first call at midnight July 1 will be to Westbrook to offer the deal, and he may well take it reports Royce Young of ESPN.

Those close to Westbrook fully expect him to take the Thunder’s offer, quite possibly at 12:01 a.m., and stabilize the franchise and present a clear road map. Westbrook signed an extension last summer and invoked the word “loyalty” for a reason. He wanted to make a statement — a public declaration — and take on the burden of leading the franchise forward.

He likes the existing roster and has a close relationship and confidence in Presti and Weaver. He has built a strong bond with head coach Billy Donovan. He knew what he signed for and, with the Thunder coming off a successful first post-Durant season and with pieces in place to improve the team, there are a lot of reasons to commit again.

If Westbrook signs this, the Thunder can get on with the business of improving this roster — which will be next to impossible. The Thunder are capped out and have to re-sign restricted free agent Andre Roberson. Sam Presti is a smart man, but his hands are mostly tied due to some of the big contracts on the roster (ones that would have been no issue if Kevin Durant had stayed). The Thunder will make moves around the edges, but it’s going to take time to do anything substantial.

If Westbrook doesn’t sign this, more than just red flags will go up in OKC — this will be sirens and flashing red lights. The Thunder will be forced to think about trading Westbrook, or finding a way to keep him happy and in house. They will basically be right back to where they were last summer.

If Westbrook signs it — and he likely will, that’s a lot of money to leave on the table — it at least gives the Thunder a clear direction. Which is about all they can hope for this summer.