NBA Playoffs: Grizzlies go to work, Spurs go home

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The deed is done. Even the slightest doubts of the Grizzlies’ prowess in their first round series have been put to rest, as have the revered San Antonio Spurs. Memphis completed their seemingly improbable upset by dominating in the most probable ways; the Grizz scrambled, posted up, defended, rebounded, and scrapped their way to a 99-91 Game 6 victory, the final fantastic performance of their 4-2 upset of top-seeded San Antonio.

The momentum of Game 6 seemed to shift in favor of whichever team controlled the glass. Initially, the Grizzlies worked the offensive boards while limiting the Spurs to a single opportunity. Those two aspects of their first quarter play were crucial to forming an early cushion, and would later come into play when the Grizzlies started to create separation — however slight — from their opponents in pursuit. The Spurs had their moments, though; whether due to fatigue or just a lack of effort on Memphis’ part, San Antonio made a push in the second and hung around in the third due to their competition on the glass. It couldn’t last. Not with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol bullying their way into prime rebound position. Not with Shane Battier darting around the court collecting more boards than all but two of the Spurs. Memphis outscored San Antonio in each of the quarters in which they held the rebounding advantage, and while that may be implicit (fewer points usually indicate more misses, and more misses beget more opportunities to rebound), the Grizzlies’ effort to control the boards was clearly explicit.

Rebounding was only a portion of Randolph’s contribution, though. His play in this game and this series is the reason why the Grizzlies are the toast of the league at present; when he hasn’t been dominating the glass, Randolph has been scoring like a legitimate superstar, and the consistency of his point production provided a steady pillar for Memphis’ surge. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili cut into the Grizzlies’ lead repeatedly over the game’s final minutes, but Randolph never relented. He backed down Antonio McDyess. He hit turnaround jumpers over outstretched arms. He converted the kinds of shots usually reserved for the league’s true elite, a distinction which Randolph creeps closer toward with every performance like this one. His production is unquestionable, and now his résumé includes the toppling of a conference power despite being in a position of the greatest seeding disadvantage.

Gasol wasn’t quite as overtly punishing as Randolph, but his ability to exploit Tim Duncan on both ends of the court throughout the series has been eye-opening. Duncan’s decline over the last few seasons has been evident, but Gasol dominated their individual matchup to a degree that would surprise even Gasol’s greatest advocates. The box score only puts Gasol at an advantage of three rebounds and one turnover while merely matching Duncan’s point total, but his defensive presence removed an invaluable failsafe from San Antonio’s offensive plans. Duncan’s post and face-up game were both taken away, as Gasol’s size, length, and defensive acumen put him in an optimal position to contest at all times. Neutralizing Duncan doesn’t shut down the Spurs offense in itself, but it gives the Grizzlies’ team defense the opportunity it needs to swarm ball handlers and attack passing lanes. Duncan may have been Plan C, but removing him as an option puts all the more pressure on Plans A, B, and D. Manu Ginobili (A), Tony Parker (B), and the Spurs’ supporting cast (D) were never able to fully compensate.

The Spurs competed. They fought hard until the very end, and if not for Randolph’s unspeakable might, they likely could have ushered in the hope and potential salvation of a Game 7. Yet they didn’t, and as much as our natural basketball instincts wish to heap praise on the Grizzlies, it’s worth remembering that the Spurs lost this series. They came in with the second-best record in basketball and home court advantage against any Western Conference opponent and were dropped in the first round. I’m honestly not quite sure what the word “choke,” means anymore (the term has been recast and bastardized to the point that it no longer holds meaning), but by most conventional definitions of the word as I understand them, the Spurs did no such thing. They did, however, lose a series in which they were considered a sure favorite, and failed to capitalize on their strong regular season performance. San Antonio remains a tremendous organization and a quality team, but they disappointed in this series with their inefficacy.

In this championship-or-bust playoff framework, it’s not enough to just show up and play hard, even when boasting a supposedly superior roster. San Antonio worked, but they didn’t execute consistently enough; they failed to convert shots at the rim and beyond the arc, and had no answer for the Randolph-Gasol tandem, nor the capacity to match the wild card offensive contributions of Mike Conley, O.J. Mayo, Tony Allen, and Sam Young. Gregg Popovich and the Spurs are obviously still worthy of our respect, but Pop was out-coached and his team was out-played. The Spurs aren’t going home after the first round because of some fluke, but because the Grizzlies bested them — they of the No. 1 seed, the second-best offense in the league, and the fourth-best regular season margin of victory — in a legitimate measure of basketball worth.

Report: Mikhail Prokhorov ‘warmed’ to selling controlling stake of Nets

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Mikhail Prokhorov bought 80% of the Nets in 2010. A couple years ago, he tried to sell his stake, but decided to keep it. Then, he bought 100% of the franchise and its arena. After last season, he said he was selling 49% of the team.

Now?

Josh Kosman and Brian Lewis of the New York Post:

Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, while focused on selling a minority stake in the franchise, has warmed recently to the possibility of offering a controlling slice of the team, sources close to the situation said.

The change of heart comes after the initial reaction to the minority stake sale was weak — and with interest in the Houston Rockets sale heating up, one source said.

The Rockets’ sale could shake out potential Nets buyers, and Prokhorov selling a controlling stake could also help. It’d cost more money than the 49% he’s offering now, but people with the money to buy an NBA team tend to value control.

This might be a good time to sell for Prokhorov, who lost a ton of money as the team paid major luxury tax for an all-in championship pursuit that flopped spectacularly. The NBA’s popularity is rising, and the league is reaping huge revenue from its national-TV contracts.

However, he shouldn’t assume the Rockets’ sale price will predict the Nets’. Buyers might prefer a good team with James Harden and Chris Paul to a bad one short on young talent after years of mismanagement. At least Brooklyn’s payroll is now tolerably low.

The big loser here: Leslie Alexander, who’s trying to sell the Rockets. The supply of NBA teams now available might have just doubled, and unless there’s no overlap in demand for those franchises, that can only drive down Alexander’s eventual sale price.

Report: Clippers paid $3.2 million – second-most ever – for draft pick (Jawun Evans)

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The Warriors set a record by paying $3.5 million for a draft pick, buying the Bulls’ No. 38 pick and using it on Jordan Bell this year.

That eclipsed the $3 million spent by each the Thunder in 2010 (to the Hawks for the No. 31 pick, Tibor Pleiss) and Nets in 2016 (to move up 13 spots for Isaiah Whitehead).

So did the Clippers’ purchase of the No. 39 pick (Jawun Evans) from the 76ers this year.

Eric Pincus of Basketball Insiders:

The Clippers also paid the Bucks $2 million for the No. 48 pick (Sindarius Thornwell).

I rated Evans a low first-rounder due to his speed and drive-and-kick game, so getting him in the second round is good value. I’m not as keen on Thornwell, who’s already 22 and built so much of his success at South Carolina on being more physical than younger opponents.

But the more swings the Clippers take on young players, the more likely they are to find long-term contributors. More power to owner Steve Ballmer for greenlighting this expenditure.

Importantly, as players acquired through the draft, Evans and Thornwell will count for the luxury tax at their actual salaries. Players signed otherwise, even if their actual salaries are lower, count at at least the two-years-experience minimum.

Under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, teams can spend $5.1 million in cash this season. That amount will increase (or decrease) in proportion with the salary cap in coming years. So, expect the previous record for draft-pick purchase price – $3 million – to fall again and again.

There’s just more leeway now for the NBA’s haves to separate themselves from the have-nots.

Jeannie Buss says she didn’t understand why Lakers signed Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov

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Last summer, the Lakers signed Luol Deng (four years, $72 million) and Timofey Mozgov (four years, $64 million) to contracts that immediately looked like liabilities.

At worst, Deng and Mozgov would help the Lakers win just enough to lose their top-three protected 2017 first-round pick – which would have triggered also sending out an unprotected 2019 first-rounder – then settle in as huge overpays. At best, Deng and Mozgov would provide a little veteran leadership while the team still loses enough to keep its pick… then settle in as huge overpays.

The Lakers got the best-case scenario, which was still pretty awful.

They had to attach D'Angelo Russell just to dump Mozgov’s deal on the Nets. Even if he no longer fit long-term with Lonzo Ball, Russell could’ve fit another asset if he weren’t necessary as a sweetener in a Mozgov trade. Deng remains on the books as impediment to adding free agents (like Paul George and LeBron James) next summer.

Who’s to blame?

Jeanie Buss was the Lakers’ president and owner. Jim Buss, another owner, ran the front office with Mitch Kupchak.

Bill Oram of The Orange County Register:

Within the walls of the Lakers headquarters, Jeanie’s grand corner office had begun to feel like a cell. She could not make sense of the strategy employed by her brother and Kupchak. They had cycled through four coaches in five seasons and under their watch the Lakers won a combined 63 games in three full seasons. Last summer, they spent $136 million of precious cap space on veterans Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov, who made little sense for the direction of the team.

“I just didn’t understand what the thought process was,” she said, “whether our philosophies were so far apart that I couldn’t recognize what they were doing, or they couldn’t explain it well.”

No. Nope, nope, nope. I don’t want to hear it.

Jeanie empowered Jim and his silly timeline, which made it inevitable he place self-preservation over the Lakers’ best long-term interests. That’s why he looked for a quick fix with Mozgov and Deng, who’s still hanging over the Lakers’ plans.

She deserves scrutiny for allowing such a toxic environment that yielded predictably bad results (even if family ties clouded her judgment).

That said, she also deserves credit for learning from her mistake. She fired Jim and Kupchak – admittedly too late, but she still did it – and hired Magic Johnson. There’s no guarantee Johnson will direct the Lakers back to prominence, but he clearly has a better working relationship with Jeanie than Jim did and, so far (in a small sample), looks more competent in the job.

Reports: Heat pessimistic about/uninterested in trading for Kyrie Irving

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Kyrie Irving, in requesting a trade from the Cavaliers, reportedly listed the Heat among his preferred destinations. Though Irving – without a no-trade clause and locked up for two more years – holds only minimal sway, teams would logically offer more for him if they believe he’d re-sign.

Will Miami trade for Irving?

Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald:

And while the possibility certainly cannot be ruled out, the Heat does not have considerable optimism about being able to strike a deal, multiple league sources said.

One Eastern Conference official who spoke to the Heat said Miami considers itself something of a long shot.

Tim Reynolds, the reputable Associated Press Heat and NBA writer, said on Steve Shapiro’s Sports Xtra on WSVN-7 that he does not believe Miami is interested in acquiring Irving.

Like the Kings, though to a far lesser extent, the Heat might not be interested because they know they stand no little of landing Irving.

Goran Dragic would almost certainly have to go to Cleveland in a deal, supplanted by Irving in Miami. Dragic would upgrade the Cavs at point guard over Derrick Rose and Jose Calderon, but at 31, Dragic would also significantly shorten Cleveland’s window.

The Heat would have to send much more. It’s just not clear what.

The Cavaliers, with Tristan Thompson, might not have much interest in centers Hassan Whiteside and Bam Adebayo. Justise Winslow‘s weak 3-point shooting makes him a tough fit with LeBron James, and Winslow’s shoulder injury last season damages his stock anywhere. Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson are helpful contributors, but Johnson’s salary skyrockets north of $19 million each of the following two seasons, and Richardson will hit free agency (and get a raise) after this season. James Johnson, Dion Waiters and Kelly Olynyk – who all signed this summer – can’t be traded until Dec. 15. (I’m not sure which prospect is funnier, Waiters returning to Cleveland or playing with Irving in Miami.) The Heat also owe the Suns two future first-round picks – one top-seven protected in 2018 and unprotected in 2019, the other unprotected in 2021.

It’s difficult, maybe impossible, for Miami to assemble a suitable trade package given those constraints.

At least the Heat would keep open the possibility of LeBron returning if they don’t trade for Irving.