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Heat, Mavericks go opposite directions after last year’s finals

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Last June, the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat were the two teams left standing on top of the NBA mountain. They were the two teams that made, it, that advanced to the NBA finals. Dallas, as we all recall, came out on top.

Last July, these two teams started traveling very different paths that lead to where they are right now.

Miami is rolling, up 3-0 in the first round on a Knicks team that was supposed to push them a little. They brought in depth, they’ve modified the system and the players bought into it, and for stretches now they play just suffocating defense. Still, they feel like a Maserati in fourth gear — they could be even more impressive.

Dallas is getting rolled, down 3-0 in the first round to a Thunder team they took out in five games last playoffs. Dallas’ owner Mark Cuban decided to look long term rather than chase a ring with the same cast, and that combined with some bad luck has them on the verge of an embarrassingly quick elimination.

It’s quite a contrast.

And it’s all about decisions made during the summer, while the NBA was locked out and soon after it returned.

Miami’s flaws were exposed in the finals — not enough depth, plus their three big stars — Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade — did not fully mesh. LeBron, in particular, was more passive during the finals and nobody could step into those shoes.

Coach Erick Spoelstra spent the summer coming up with a system that better fit his three stars — pressure defense and transition. If you have the best athletes and the best finishers, put them in positions to do what they do best. The Heat pressure and gamble on defense, they force mistakes because of their athleticism, then they turned those into highlight transition dunks. As the season wore on the Heat strayed from that plan, but they still bring it back in spurts and have done more of that in the playoffs. The Knicks have been overwhelmed when they do.

Miami also added depth — Shane Battier, Norris Cole — and got guys like Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem healthy.

Right now, especially after Derrick Rose’s injury in Chicago, the Heat look like they could steamroll back to the finals.

Dallas will not be facing them.

Mark Cuban made a decision to focus on the long term — he did not bring back Tyson Chandler, Caron Butler, DeShawn Stevenson, J.J. Barea. He did not offer contract extensions to others. The result is a good long-term plan — this summer they will have the free agent money to offer a max deal to Deron Williams (or whoever else they choose). If they can move Shawn Marion, they may be able to bring in another big star.

This was not a strip-it-to-the-bone, move, this was trying to rebuild on the fly. It was a calculated risk.

It hasn’t worked out as planned and now they are paying the price. While Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry are still there, this team does not have the depth or the depth of talent it did last year. Part of that is because of the Lamar Odom meltdown — they made a good gamble they could get the former Laker to come around with them, but he never did. That is a versatile, quality player who could have helped on a lot of fronts.

But it might not have mattered. The Thunder were going to get better. The Lakers have improved, as have the Grizzlies and Clippers. The West was going to be harder to get out of and Dallas took an intentional step back with its eye on the long term. Two years from now we may praise Cuban’s move as visionary — this is the kind of “make a move early rather than late” decision Jerry Buss has been making with the Lakers for years.

But it came with a price — these Mavericks are not as good as last year’s.

They are on an opposite trajectory from the team they knocked off in the finals last year. What a difference one year can make.

Alivin Gentry, you worried about being fired: “I really don’t give a s— about my job status”

NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 26:  Head coach Alvin Gentry of the New Orleans Pelicans looks on as his team plays the Denver Nuggets at the Smoothie King Center on October 26, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Denver won the game 107-102. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
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The Pelicans are disappointing this season — it is Anthony Davis vs. the world down there. Which is the main reason they are 7-16 this season. While things have gotten better since Jrue Holiday‘s return, Davis is averaging a league-best 31.4 points per game, it then drops off to Holiday at 15.4, and then E'Twaun Moore at 11.1.

When a team struggles, usually that is a bad sign for the coach. Not because it’s always their fault, but because GMs choose not to fire themselves for poor roster construction. Which leads to the question: Alvin Gentry, are you concerned about your job? (Warning, NSFW)

Gentry with classic coach-speak: Control what you can control.

New Orleans’ struggles are not on Gentry, certainly not completely. He’d like a roster that can play uptempo, that has depth. What he got instead was a good point guard, an elite 4/5, a rookie in Buddy Hield that maybe pans out down the line, and then… nada. And the roster Gentry has often is banged up.

If anyone is in trouble, it is GM Dell Demps. Remember, Danny Ferry was hired last summer for the vague role of “special advisor.” Gentry is in his second year, and the issue is the roster he was given. But the Pelicans are a patient organization that values continuity, so… who knows. But the clock is ticking on Davis;, it’s years away, but the Pelicans need to build a team around him and are far from that right now.

Cavaliers’ James Jones says he’ll retire after next season

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 25:  James Jones #1 of the Cleveland Cavaliers receives his championship ring from owner Dan Gilbert before the game against the New York Knicks at Quicken Loans Arena on October 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.   NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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James Jones has made a business of playing with LeBron James, and business is good.

Jones has ridden LeBron’s coattails to three contracts with the Cavaliers and appearances in five straight NBA Finals – the second-longest streak (behind LeBron’s six) outside the 1950s/60s Celtics:

But the 36-year-old Jones is preparing to retire.

Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal:

Jones told the Beacon Journal he will retire after next season, which will be his 15th in the NBA. His ultimate dream is to ride off after three consecutive championships in Cleveland

“I know playing 15 years is a number where I can look back and I can be like, ‘I accomplished something,’ ” Jones said. “Fourteen vs. 15 may not be much, but to be able to say I played 15 years, that’s enough for me to hang ’em up.”

Jones’ contract expires after the season, so the Cavs will have a say in whether he returns. Safe to say if LeBron wants him back, Jones will be back.

But the Heat got into trouble relying on washed-up veterans around LeBron, wasting valuable roster spots on players who could no longer contribute.

Is that Jones? Not yet. Though he’s out of the rotation, he has still made 11-of-12 open 3-pointers this season. There’s a role for him as spot-up shooter when Cleveland needs one.

Still, the Cavaliers ought to be mindful of Jones’ likely decline over the next year and a half. Plus, it’s not a certainty he holds to his timeline. Cavs veterans have a history of changing their mind on retirement.

PBT Extra: What did Phil Jackson think he would accomplish with shot at ‘Melo?

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Phil Jackson wants us to know Carmelo Anthony can hold on to the ball too long and stall out the offense.

Shocking. Such a revelation. It’s not like he knew that when he gave Anthony a five-year contract extension… oh, wait, everybody did know that already.

Which leads to my criticism of Jackson in this PBT Extra. Taking a shot at a player as a coach who sees said player every day comes off differently than the same thing from the ivory tower criticism of a GM. Plus, Jackson’s timing made no sense.

Carmelo Anthony says Phil Jackson’s comments “temporary black cloud over our heads”

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 07:  Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks and the rest of the bench react to the loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers at Madison Square Garden on December 7, 2016 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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The New York Knicks were on a four-game winning streak, they have looked like a potential playoff team in the East, team chemistry has been pretty good, and there seemed to be more sun shining on Madison Square Garden then we have seen in a few years.

So Phil Jackson decided that was a good time to a CBS Sports Show and take a shot at Carmelo Anthony, saying he could play the MJ/Kobe role, but he holds the ball too long on offense. Anthony wouldn’t comment on the shot at the time, then took to Instagram to express his frustration and displeasure.

How do we know for sure it was aimed at Jackson? Because on Friday Anthony said so, adding that Jackson’s comments were unnecessary. Here is what ‘Melo said, via Stephan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

“At the end of the day we’re playing good basketball,” Anthony said. “That’s the only thing that matters at this point. So any negativity that’s coming towards me or towards the team, I don’t think we need it at this point…

“I feel like we’re playing good basketball, and just to have a temporary black cloud over our heads,” he said. “I don’t know when the comments were made or the gist of them, I just know something was said.”

Anthony is spot on here. Jackson isn’t wrong that Anthony can hold the ball too long, but Jackson knew that when he gave Anthony a five-year contract extension. Also, the Sports VU camera data shows Anthony is holding the ball less and dribbling a little less than previous seasons.

But the real question: What did Jackson think he would accomplish with this? He’s too smart, too calculated — he doesn’t just say things to the press without a motive. But with everything going about as well as one could hope with the Knicks, and with Anthony not at a point in his career he’s going to change his game, what’s the point?

Anthony has a right to be ticked.