This year, can an underdog win the NBA title?

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Bill James, the legendary baseball statistician, has said the problem with the NBA is the best team almost always wins.

In baseball, the summer-long 162-game season gives you the best teams in each division, but the best-of-seven playoff series involves a lot of luck and favors hot pitchers and bullpens. In the NFL the playoffs are single elimination, favoring the hottest team not always the best team. Same with the NCAA college basketball tournament.

But the NBA, with its best of seven, heavily favors the heavily favorite. Put simply, at the start of the NBA season you can name the five teams most likely to win an NBA title and 9 times out of 10 your champion comes from that group.

Which makes this season’s NBA playoffs interesting. Sure, we may still wind up with Lakers vs. Celtics in the finals, but this year there will be upsets and new faces.

Could an underdog actually hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the season?

Well, define underdog. Do you mean a team that is an underdog in its first-round playoff matchup? Then no. Look, maybe the Knicks get by the Celtics, or the Trail Blazers knock off the Mavericks, but do you really think New York or Portland are making a run all the way to the NBA finals? I like LaMarcus Aldridge and Gerald Wallace as much as the next guy, but Portland would have to get past the Lakers and the Spurs just to reach the finals. The Knicks would still have the Heat and Bulls just to get to the finals. So, no, that’s not really happening.

But, could someone we didn’t expect at the start of the year win the title?

The Chicago Bulls fit that bill. And if defense wins championships then they have a real chance because nobody defends like them, taking away what other teams are comfortable with, closing out on shooters. They get enough offense from Derrick Rose, at least they did during the regular season. That will be the test, when teams start trapping Rose and daring anyone else to beat them who will step up. The Bulls will still execute better than anyone on defense, but will their offense be up to the task.

Out west, the Oklahoma City Thunder fit the bill. There were everybody’s darling when they were running up and down the court and pushing the Lakers to six games last year. Now they are more mature and they added Kendrick Perkins to address a need in the paint. They are on the verge of a breakthrough, and they should get past Denver in the first round.

They likely face San Antonio in the second round, and that will be their big test — the Thunder are the more athletic team, but have they matured in how to use that athleticism enough overcome the calm, efficient execution of the Spurs. Will Kevin Durant be a playoff assassin, will Russell Westbrook use his quickness within the system. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was worried they could and said last week that his team would be challenged trying to run up and down the court with the Thunder.

If the Thunder defend, if they get Durant and Westbrook going, they can beat anyone. They can beat the Spurs, they can beat the Lakers. They are contenders.

Still, maybe not this year. But in a couple of years, expect to see a Thunder vs. Bulls finals. But by then they will be the favorites.

Report: Nets, Sixers to try and land J.J. Redick as free agent

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Chris Paul and Blake Griffin get all the headlines as the big Clippers’ big free agents, but there is another Clipper going to get paid this summer:

J.J. Redick.

One of the best snipers in the NBA, he shot 42.9 percent from three last year. However, he’s become much more than just a shooter. No player works harder off the ball to get open than Redick, he’s got enough game to put the ball on the floor and create if he gets closed out on, and he’s a solid team defender. He has remade his body and his game since his days at Duke, and now he’s going to get paid.

Maybe by Brooklyn or Philadephia, reports Kevin O’Conner at The Ringer.

Multiple league sources I’ve spoken to expect the Sixers and Nets to make a hard push at Redick. Were he to go to either of those teams, Redick could receive an opportunity unlike anything he’s had before. He is one of the greatest 3-point shooters in league history, and is coming off a season in which he averaged a career-high six 3-point attempts per game. That’s a lot of triples, but it’s not enough. Even Sixers swingman Robert Covington averaged more last season, at 6.1 per game, and he shot only 33.3 percent. A gunslinger of Redick’s caliber should be averaging about 8.5 treys, in the same range as Klay Thompson or Eric Gordon. Had Redick taken 8.5 3s last season and posted the same 42.9 percent clip, he would’ve averaged 18.2 points per game. Redick could receive those chances with the Sixers or Nets, all while living within close proximity to his home in Brooklyn.

Redick will have options, the question is what does he want? Does he want to be close to home in Brooklyn? Does he want to both help on the court and mentor off it the up-and-coming Sixers? Would he take a little less money, and a couple fewer shots, to chase a ring? Does he want to stay a Clipper?

Redick has earned the right to have options, his skill set could help any team. He may be flying under fans’ radar, but not front office executives. They see Redick’s value. Which is why he will have options come July 1.

Report: Nuggets plan to make free agent run at Blake Griffin, Paul Millsap

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Denver likes its young core. As it should. Nikola Jokic looks like a franchise cornerstone piece at center. Young guards Gary Harris and Jamal Murray are clearly part of the future. Emmanuel Mudiay and Juan Hernangomez may be as well.

What Denver needs most is an upgrade at the four — someone who can defend, rebound, and space the floor. It’s a top off-season priority (and why they came up as a third team in the Kevin Love/Paul George trade talks, but that appears dead now).

Instead, expect the Nuggets to be aggressive on the free agent market. Via Marc Stein and Chris Haynes at ESPN.

Denver, according to sources, hopes to crash the list of suitors for Los Angeles Clippers unrestricted free agent Blake Griffin and Atlanta Hawks unrestricted free agent Paul Millsap.‎

Denver’s interest in Millsap is no secret and they will likely come in with a big offer, and it’s known he’s likely to leave Atlanta this summer. He’d be the perfect fit with his ability to defend other fours (he almost made the NBA All-Defensive Team), he is strong on the glass, and he shot 31.3 percent from three last season (you have to respect him out there). Griffin is more athletic and a better passer than Millsap, but he’s not the same level of defender, and he comes with more injury concerns. He also could stay with the Clippers.

Denver has positioned itself to be a player, a team going after one more big star to position itself not just in the playoffs in the West but as a team fast on the rise. Whether the Nuggets can out-recruit teams for elite players, remains to be seen. Millsap, Griffin and players of that level have options and a lot of teams chasing them.

However, Denver is one confident organization right now.

Twitter is confused: Isaiah Thomas, Damian Lillard got All-Defensive team votes

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Isaiah Thomas is deservedly an All-NBA player and likely finished fifth in MVP balloting after a monster season. Damian Lillard is an All-Star level player who averaged 27 points a game for Portland last season.

Neither of them are good defenders. At all.

Both got one NBA All-Defensive second team vote.

There are no great defensive metrics, but the best snapshot one out there is ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, which weighs a lot of factors into how a player and team defends. Thomas finished 86th out of 86 potential point guards, and second to last in the entire NBA (to answer your question, Doug McDermott was worse). Lillard finished 65th among point guards, in the range of Brandon Jennings and J.J. Barea. One stat certainly should not be a deciding factor for voters, but Twitter was rightfully confused how either of them got an All-Defense vote.

Isaiah Thomas chimed in, but he wasn’t defending himself.

On Tuesday the NBA will release a full breakdown of which media members voted and who they voted for on all the awards. (For the record, I had a vote, and I didn’t vote for either of them here). The NBA’s voting system can be a challenge because it’s pulldown menus with a lot of players, it could just be an error, but you can bet Twitter will be ready to ask.

Sixers young core already nicknamed “FEDS,” Durant thinks they should play a game first

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Hype is high in Philadelphia.

They have two NBA All-Rookie players on the roster already — Joel Embiid and Dario Saric — and next year they add to the roster the last two No. 1 picks, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz. If I were a Sixers’ fan, I’d be Rocky climbing the stairs pumped — this team has real potential. So much so there’s already a nickname.

Kevin Durant and the Warriors were out taking batting practice at the A’s Stadium — that’s what you get to do when you’re NBA champs — and KD thought the Sixers may want to slow their roll and actually play a game together first.

Personally, I like the nickname. Now, will all four of them be on the Sixers in three years? Odds are at least one is gone, this is a cruel business. This was jumping the gun, but so what? Sixers fans deserve to be able to crow about something after the past couple of years.