PBT’s RetroBall: Suns-Sonics ’93 and the night Barkley wouldn’t lose

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Since billionaire owners and millionaire players are bitterly divided over how much money they’ll be splitting over the coming years and have locked us out of actual basketball to talk about, PBT will be regaling you this summer on the weekends withRetroBall. Using the advanced powers of the internet and NBATV, we’ll bring you interesting stories from years gone by. If nothing else, it will provide us an opportunity to make fun of fashion and culture from the past, which is always a giggle.

This week we bring you a reminder that players should not be defined by their post-career caricatures. I have this nightmare. With Charles Barkley the bombastic, heavy-set column that hoists “Inside the NBA” up, there’s a generation of kids that will only know Barkley as the guy in the T-Mobile commercials who hates Golden State/Miami/Dallas/whoever. Barkley was of the Jordan years, and as such, his legacy suffers accordingly. His Finals appearances only reflect a counterpoint to Jordan, yet another great player who couldn’t get past MJ, much like Karl Malone and Clyde Drexler with Portland. It’s a disservice to what Barkley did, especially considering how he did it, that he’s looked at as the foil to Jordan and the guy who banters with Dwyane Wade in commercials.

So with that in mind, I took a look at Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals between Barkley’s Phoenix Suns and the Seattle Supersonics, led by Shawn Kemp, Ricky Pierce, and Eddie Johnson, along with Gary Payton in just his third year in the league, still learning how to become “The Glove.”

Speaking of Malone, the Sonics knocked off Malone and Stockton’s Jazz in the first round, before cementing themselves as true upstarts after downing Olajuwon’s Rockets. The Rockets would win the title the following year (when Jordan took his “break”). The Sonics were the third seed that year, but were tied with the Rockets at 55 wins. It was Kemp’s time.

Barkley, on the other hand, was having his MVP season and Phoenix looked like a team of destiny, if you didn’t factor in the fact that Jordan existed. This was Barkley at his best, and there isn’t a better game to showcase how dominant he could be. His final line? 44 points on 12-20 shooting, 19-22 from the stripe, 24 rebounds (!), 14 offensive, 1 assist, 1 steal, 1 block, 1 turnover.

What follows are my observations from watching the game. I was eleven at the time, so consider these observations from a fresh eye.

  • We’re obviously biased here, but I’ll still say the “NBA on NBC” opening and their coverage throughout was just lightyears beyond everything else that’s been done. It managed to capture the drama of the moment without dousing it in forced history. You felt like you were watching history be made without being told you were watching history be made.
  • Best part about this game? THIN SHAWN KEMP! (As in, the era before Fat Shawn Kemp.) If you were building the perfect power forward, this 23-year-old version of Kemp was pretty much the perfect model. He was still raw, but was already averaging 18 points and 11 boards with 2 blocks per game. Kemp in the last three games of this series headed into Game 7 had scored 20, 33, and 22 points on Barkley, and had the following field goal percentages: 62%, 72% (in that 33-point game, in a loss!), 67%. He was lithe, he was explosive, and he actually had a turnaround jumper. It’s weird to think of a power forward who is raw but actually has a face-up game. Now if you’re raw that pretty much means you’re a basketball jellyfish. You’re fast and long, but if asked to do anything complex you just bob incoherently.
  • The Suns explode out of the gate, and it’s not even really Barkley, he’s only got six in the first period. (That’s right, Barkley scores 38 points over the final three frames.) No, instead it’s the unlikely combination of Tom Chambers and Mark West. I know! Who saw that coming, right?
  • Chambers is actually in for Cedric Ceballos who went down in this series with a stress fracture in his right foot. Chambers was actually the third oldest player on roster behind Frank Johnson and Kurt Rambis, who got a DNP-CD in this game. No word on if this is because Kahn retroactively enforced one.
  • You want something to blow your mind, forget thin Shawn Kemp. Give a look to thin Oliver Miller. Seriously. I Googled an image of Miller with the Raptors to compare. Here’s Miller with the Suns in Game 7, 1993:
  • source:  And here’s what he looked like seven years later:
  • source:  So you can obviously see the change there.
  • Gary Payton isn’t quite Gary Payton yet, here. He’s still working on developing into the Glove. It’s only his third season, and he’s up against a much better player in Kevin Johnson, who’s in his prime. Johnson absolutely torches Payton in this one. “The Glove” is more like a loose-fitting piece of cloth that one wraps around a hand. More like a hand moo-moo. Johnson’s crossover and change of direction is phenomenal in this game. At one point, Payton gives him a solid three feet of room to try and contain him, Johnson blows by him anyway, then drops in a running hook and-one. It’s a virtuoso performance, but moreso on the defensive side. Johnson is spying constantly like a safety let off the called-play chain. The Sonics thrice try and force the break and Johnson cuts off the outlet pass.
  • In a nice premonition of the Seven Seconds or Less years, the Suns are downright merciless in transition. The break starts immediately, and KJ makes his decision on what to do after two steps and as soon as he’s across the timeline. Most of the time he’s just blowing by defenders and getting in for layups, the Sonics don’t have anyone who can challenge defensively at the rim with the amount of time and energy Kemp’s having to pay Barkley.
  • The Sonics shooters kind of drift in and out of this game. Derrick McKey shows up and lights up the second quarter which puts the Sonics back within range. Then Eddie Johnson takes over the late third and fourth. Sam Perkins has a nice third quarter. But they can’t get consistent performances from anyone (though to be fair, if Eddie Johnson played the whole game like he did in the third quarter, he would have broken Wilt’s record and Barkley would have wound up killing someone in the locker room later.
  • Early on the Sonics are doing a great job on Barkley, sending the double immediately. If he were Dwight Howard, this would be the end of the story. But Barkley actually adjusts to the coverage and starts cutting immediately after passing out of the double, which confuses the Sonics to no end as all their lanes are then in chaos. At one point, Barkley just loops around Majerle low and shoves Majerle into two defenders, which allows Ainge to float him the ball right in the center of the paint for an easy one.
  • Barkley starts to get going in the second, then absolutely destroys the third quarter. He’s everywhere. Kemp’s there with him step for step and Barkley’s just owning him. Kemp makes two hard moves to deny the entry pass and the third time down, Barkley just head fakes him, turns and goes to the basket for an easy dunk. Most of them are not this easy. Barkley’s anticipation is on display here. The Suns were essentially able to play four perimeter guys with Barkley because even then, he’d wind up with the board.
  • Danny Ainge at this point had played in five finals over the past eight years. Remarkably, he never traded Kendrick Perkins in any of them.
  • Ainge is pretty much the “you gotta be kidding me” guy to Seattle. They can handle everyone else, but just when they think they’ve closed off the offense effectively, Ainge lights them up on catch and shoot. It’s more than they can handle.
  • Mark West with a great weak-side recovery to block Payton at the rim. On the block, which was clean, West makes contact elbow-to-head on Payton. Payton just turns and runs back on defense. Today, Payton would have clutched his head and crumpled to the floor, perhaps penning a letter to his mother on his death-bed.
  • Barkley spins around Kemp from about 16 feet baseline. The help defense comes to try and cut off the baseline, while Payton is trying to play his backside to make sure he doesn’t double back for a hook. The result is that Barkley moves in-between the two and double-clutches one-handed while fading away from under the rim, good, and-one. Kemp picks up his fourth foul.
  • Another thing that’s shocking about Barkley, he can handle in transition. Now at 6-6, this isn’t shocking, he’s basically an oversized 3. But he’s dribbling with such authority, it makes you realize how few of today’s bigs can really do that. Except for like, Josh Smith, who chooses not to and instead just now, as I wrote this, took another three.
  • When Eddie Johnson starts going off in the third, Barkley actually tails off on his rotation, springs out and blocks him. Running down the floor, you can see Barkley say, “Enough of this (expletive).”
  • In the fourth, the Suns kick the thing into absolute overdrive. They’re forcing everything, and the Sonics are just reeling. They managed to get the lead down to 9 in the early fourth, before the Suns just have one of those “We are winning this game. We are going to the Finals, we are not losing to Ricky Pierce” runs.
  • At one point Payton goes for a rebound, Barkley snags and starts throwing elbows, resulting in Payton chirping in his ear for a solid five feet. Barkley shoves him three feet back, turns and yells back at him. In today’s NBA, that’s two techs. Here it’s just good clean entertainment.
  • Eddie Johnson at one point tosses it off Majerle’s back inbounding, catches it and nails an 18 foot baseline J. The Sonics had to be killing themselves that they wasted a 34 point Eddie Johnson explosion at age 33. Johnson winds up scoring 34 points on 17 shots in 26 minutes. Twenty-six!
  • Nate McMillan was burly in this game. He couldn’t get his jumper going but his defensive work was pretty stout. The Sonics’ defensive strategy was actually pretty sound. Lots of doubles, lots of traps, lots of zone to cut off the passing lanes. Unfortunately, Charles Barkley does not care what you do.
  • I always make fun of the unnecessary “MVP” chants, but the chants for Barkley at the line for his playoff career-high in points seem really appropriate and make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
  • Chants of “Beat the Bulls” begin as the clock winds down. Oh, Phoenix. You’re always so hopeful.
  • The closer lineup for Phoenix is KJ, Ainge, Dan Majerle, Barkley,and Tom Chambers. And it works. They crush the Sonics, breaking open an 18 point lead to cruise to a double-digit win and a trip to the Finals.
  • Barkley had guaranteed a win. This was everything to him. He truly believed this was his year to make greatness happen. And the Sonics had pushed the Suns to seven games. So when Barkley went out, after an unbelievable game, this: source:

 

Magic Johnson: Lakers might save cap space for 2019

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LeBron James seems to be tempering expectations of him signing with the Lakers.

Lakers president Magic Johnson – who has hyped signing two max free agents this summer – is doing the same.

Johnson on Spectrum SportsNet , as transcribed by Harrison Faigen of Lakers Nation.

“I feel really good about it. Now, we have cap space for probably two max guys, but that’s not to say we’ll use both of them. We want to if we can, but we have a Plan A and we have Plan B. Say we only get one of those guys, then we’ll make a decision on not to use the cap space. We can do that and save it for the class that’s coming the next year. We’re not going to give money away just because we have the cap space. I’m not about that. If the guy can’t really take our team to another level, and we see what Kyrie Irving has done for the Boston Celtics. Put him with that young talent the Celtics have, and they’ve taken off. We feel the same thing can happen for the Lakers. If we get the right free agent, that guy can take our young talent to a whole ‘nother level.”

I don’t think this will be deemed tampering, though the league’s arbitrary enforcement leaves it questionable. But I’m surprised Johnson – who already played a role in the Lakers getting a $500,000 tampering fine – discussed Irving while suggesting the Lakers leave money available for 2019, when Irving will likely become a free agent. That’s just asking for trouble.

To the substance of Johnson’s comments, no, the Lakers won’t have double max cap space next summer. Not without other moves that will reduce their positive assets.

And rolling over cap space isn’t so simple. If the Lakers sign one max free agent, his 2019-20 salary will cut into 2019 cap space. Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson, Luol Deng and Kyle Kuzma are collectively due a raise of $5,895,550 from 2018-19 to 2019-20. Re-signing Julius Randle, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and/or Brook Lopez to multi-year deals would eat into 2019 cap space. It might not be possible to keep those players without multi-year guarantees, and losing them would hurt the team as it tries to impress free agents through quality play.

The Lakers shouldn’t spend just to spend this summer. But delaying would come with complications, too.

Joel Embiid takes blame for Sam Hinkie leaving 76ers

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In his letter resigning from the 76ers, Sam Hinkie wrote:

You can be wrong for the right reasons. This may well prove to be Joel Embiid.

Embiid never played for Philadelphia while Hinkie ran the team, sitting out his first two pro seasons due to injury. Then, Hinkie got ousted and Embiid got healthy. Now, Embiid – arguably the NBA’s best center – is leading the resurgent 76ers, and Hinkie is left to subtweet the franchise.

Embiid, in a Q&A with David Aldridge of NBA.com:

Me: Sam Hinkie drafted you. Do you keep in touch with him, call, text?

JE: Yeah, we text sometimes. We talk to each other sometimes. I mean, that’s the guy that drafted me, and he made sure he put everything in place so I could get healthy. And I got healthy and I got back on the court. And I feel like he basically kind of lost his job because of me, because I missed two years. So I feel like I owe him a lot. Yeah, we talk. We talk sometimes.

Hinkie’s patience in a long-term plan allowed Embiid to wait as long as necessary to play. (It also might have enabled Embiid to not take his rehab seriously enough.)

So, I get where Embiid is coming from.

But Hinkie knew what he was getting into when he drafted Embiid, who fell to the No. 3 pick in part due to injury concerns. The 76ers signed off on Hinkie’s Process then lost their appetite for the plan amid all the losing. It’s not Embiid’s fault Hinkie couldn’t persuade people to follow his direction. It’s not Embiid’s fault ownership got skittish.

Report: LeBron James won’t take discount from max salary

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In 2014, LeBron James made clear he’d accept no less than a max salary.

Ramona Shelburne and Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

James’ position on maximum contracts hasn’t changed, sources said.

Are we sure LeBron will even opt out next summer? If he opts in, he’ll earn $35,607,968 next season. If he opts out, his max starting salary projects to be $35,350,000.

Those numbers are obviously close, but LeBron will be working with imperfect information. He must decide on his player option by June 29. The salary cap, from which max salaries are derived, won’t be released until July 1.

But I doubt LeBron is fretting a few hundred thousand dollars. I don’t think he’s worried directly about the monetary difference between a max and near-max contract at all. He’s set financially, regardless.

I think this is about power. LeBron can demand a team give him as much money as allowed, and whichever one he picks will. That’s appealing from an ego standpoint, which is why I expect LeBron to opt out (or at least wield his player option to get where he wants, but more on that later).

Demanding a max salary also fits LeBron as player-union vice president. It sets a precedent teams must spend to acquire talent. That’s healthy for players as a collective.

It’s easy to say LeBron can afford to take a small discount to help his team win a championship, because that’s the paradigm. Instead, he’s challenging teams to think smartly and creatively to find a way to max him out and still build a strong supporting cast.

That doesn’t preclude LeBron from eventually relenting and taking a discount if it’s advantageous. After all, LeBron once said he’d take a discount to play with Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul. But he’s setting a far harder line than before.

LeBron, Wade and Chris Bosh took discounts to join Miami in 2010. Heat owner Micky Arison delighted in the championships and recognition those stars provided – then cut corners on the rest of the roster to save money. LeBron noticed then left. He’s clearly not accepting that anymore.

So, every team is on notice – which is why it’s overly simplistic to say every team wants to sign LeBron. Of course, every team wants to sign LeBron. But not every team is willing to take the steps necessary to seriously pursue LeBron.

In 2014, the Cavaliers made a salary-dump trade before securing a commitment from LeBron. That paid off, but they could have just been frittering away assets if he signed elsewhere. Worse, if they didn’t make the trade, LeBron might not have returned.

The 76ers won’t necessarily have max cap space next summer, but they’re reportedly expected to chase LeBron. That suggests they’ll make proactive moves if necessary to have a chance. The Lakers should have max cap space, regardless.

And what about the Rockets? They’re another team linked to LeBron, but they’ll be hard-pressed to clear max space for him. They already have nearly $76 million committed to just five players (James Harden, Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and Nene) plus three starters (Paul, Clint Capela and Trevor Ariza) headed into free agency.

But they could trade for LeBron if he opts in on condition of a deal, a la Paul last summer. How about Anderson and either Gordon or a signed-and-traded Ariza plus picks to the Cavs if they’re convinced LeBron would leave in free agency otherwise? Houston would have to send a load of picks, but it’s at least feasible.

That way, LeBron might earn more next season and re-sign for a larger max contract in 2019 – a projected $219 million over five years. That’s more than he projects to get if he re-signs with Cleveland long-term this summer ($205 million over five years).

However, that’s based on salary-cap projections that could change. And the Rockets might balk at spending so much. Of course, LeBron could also always execute the opt-in/re-sign-in-2019 plan with the Cavaliers. A trade to Houston won’t change how much money he can command from his team.

But it’s the type of no-settling thinking that might appeal to him.

Kevin Durant coming up ‘big’ for Warriors

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DETROIT – Soft. Scared. Cupcake.

Kevin Durant can’t help but hear his detractors.

“They’re trying psychoanalyze me when they don’t know me,” Durant said. “So, it’s like you have more information about the game of basketball than you do me as a person. So, ‘you’re soft,’ ‘cupcake,’ all that stuff comes from trying figure me out as a person, not worrying about my basketball skills. But if you watch me on the basketball court, then you come up with your own observation.”

That on-court observation no longer jibes with the unflattering perception of his mindset.

Durant’s height has long been a fascination. He’s listed at 6-foot-9, but he’s almost certainly taller. Durant once said he’s 7-foot when he talks to women. “He’s 7 feet,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr says plainly.

Durant just didn’t play like it.

He entered the NBA as a finesse player. He couldn’t bench press 185 pounds a single time his pre-draft combine, and he spent his rookie year in Seattle playing shooting guard – as far from the paint as a player so tall could get.

Never mind that Durant improved greatly with the Thunder as a defender and rebounder, skills that require physicality. And never mind that he was a superstar on the perimeter, giving little reason to alter his style.

When he left Oklahoma City – where he settled in at small forward – for Golden State, Durant’s on- and off-court reputations merged to form a single image. Afraid of contact, afraid of competition.

Durant is making it much harder for his critics to paint him that way. He’s playing more like a traditional big than ever.

His 2.1 blocks per game are the most by a non-center, non-power forward since Andrei Kirilenko and Josh Smith more than a decade ago (minimum: two games). His 5.3 post touches per game are the most by a non-center, non-power forward in the NBA.com database (which dates back to 2013-14).

“Getting in the mix with the bigs a little bit, I think that’s one role that I always wanted to play and always appreciated about my teammates in the past – from Kendrick Perkins to Thabo Sefolosha to Draymond to David West to Serge Ibaka,” Durant said. “I appreciated those guys for doing the dirty work and allowing me to be the player that I am on the offensive end.”

The Warriors are spoiled to have Durant assume this responsibility.

Many of his post touches come on split cuts, an action Kerr popularized in Golden State. A player – often Andrew Bogut when Kerr first implemented the play – posts up while a teammate screens for another teammate on the perimeter. Most teams would kill to have a shooter like Durant set or receive the screen. But the Warriors have Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green to do that. So, Durant serves as the post man, surveying the screen carnage and occasionally just taking matters into his own hands. This video from Eric Apricot of Golden State of Mind excellently shows a few variations:

Defensively, Durant has become more comfortable defending power forwards and centers. Sometimes, he blocks their shots:

Other times, guarding a big just positions Durant to protect the basket:

“He’s just being active,” Kerr said. “When he’s active on the weak side of the play, he’s a devastating defender.”

Durant still just bottles up an opponent in a traditional wing matchup for him and blocks a jumper. He also blocks shots in transition.

But he leads non-centers, non-power forwards with 4.8 shots defended at the rim per game (minimum: two games). His block numbers aren’t telling a misleading story. Durant is doing work in the paint.

It helps that the league has shifted toward small-ball. When the slender Durant matches up against fours and fives, his opponents aren’t as big as they would have been a few years ago.

The Warriors played Durant at center to great effect in last year’s Finals, and it’d be a shock if they didn’t turn to him there again in high-leverage situations.

Make no mistake, though: Durant remains a generational perimeter player. He’s a dead-eye shooter with tight handles and jaw-dropping fluidity. Whatever time Durant spends moonlighting as an interior player, he can always switch into the style that made him a future Hall of Famer in the first place.

His ability to play both ways just makes him even more dangerous.

Still, Durant has made his name as a small forward. He says he has always played the role coaches gave him, but it’s tough to look past the fears of Kevin Garnett, another skilled tall player who worried when he was younger he’d get pigeonholed inside if he were listed as a 7-footer. As we talked, Durant picked up on my line of questioning and interjected.

“You trying to turn me into a four guy?” Durant said.

“Maybe even a five,” I said.

“Maybe,” Durant. “I don’t know. Maybe. That’s the way the league is going.”