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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.

Cavaliers have offered Anderson Varejao a championship ring. Does he take it?

Golden State Warriors' Anderson Varejao (18) poses with a cutout with his likeness during NBA basketball media day Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
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In the middle of last season, the Cleveland Cavaliers let go of long-time Cav and fan favorite Anderson Varejao to make room for Channing Frye, a stretch four they thought would be more valuable in the playoffs. In hindsight it seems the right move.

After a cap clearing move in Portland, Varejao ended up on the bench of the Golden State Warriors. We all know the story from there, including Varejao getting some meaningful minutes after Andrew Bogut went down, but it wasn’t enough for Golden State.

Which brings us to the awkward championship ring conversation. Usually, an iconic team player like Varejao would get one from the Cavaliers, but will Varejao want this one? From Marc Stein of ESPN:

Good on the Cavaliers for offering.

Is there a correct answer for Varejao? A wrong answer? I can’t blame him either way.

He is on the Warriors roster again this season, and he once again could get meaningful minutes (now behind Zaza Pachulia). Does he decide that one with this team is what he wants (and will bet is going to happen)? Nobody can answer all these questions for him.

Nuggets retiring Dikembe Mutombo’s number at first home game

Center Dikembe Mutombo of the Denver Nuggets goes up for two over center David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs during the Nuggets game versus the Spurs at the McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Colorado.
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If the Hawks can retire Dikembe Mutombo’s number after four and a half seasons in Atlanta, the Nuggets can retire it after five in Denver.

Chris Dempsey of The Denver Post:

Mutombo will join the list of people who’ve had a number retired by multiple teams:

  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lakers, Bucks)
  • Charles Barkley (76ers, Suns)
  • Wilt Chamberlain (Warriors, Lakers, 76ers)
  • Clyde Drexler (Trail Blazers, Rockets)
  • Julius Erving (Nets, 76ers)
  • Michael Jordan (Bulls, Heat)
  • Bob Lanier (Pistons, Bucks)
  • Moses Malone (Rockets, 76ers)
  • Pete Maravich (Jazz, Pelicans)
  • Earl Monroe (Knicks, Wizards)
  • Oscar Robertson (Bucks, Kings)
  • Jerry Sloan (Bulls, Jazz)
  • Nate Thurmond (Cavaliers, Warriors)

Shaquille O’Neal, who had his number retired by the Lakers, will also make the list this season, when the Heat will put his number in the rafters.

Mutombo spent his best years with the Hawks, but he was pretty darn good with the Nuggets, who drafted him No. 4 overall in 1991. He won a Defensive Player of the Year award and went to three All-Star games with Denver. Playing for the Nuggets, he also produced the most iconic image of his career: lying on the floor and clutching the ball in jubilation after Denver became the first No. 8 seed to upset the No. 1 seed (Seattle SuperSonics in 1994):

Draymond Green says he doesn’t want to chase 74 wins: “It’s brutal.”

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 16:  Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors reacts against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena on June 16, 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 Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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If the Warriors have been consistent about one thing in the run-up to the coming season it is this: They are not going for a record number of wins again.

From the GM on down they have worked to tamp down expectations about their regular season, saying there is no goal of chasing their 73-win total of last season. This is how Draymond Green put it on media day, via Sam Amick of the USA Today.

Last season Steve Kerr and some of the staff were hesitant to chase the Jordan-era Bulls 72-win record, but it was a push from the players — Draymond Green being at the front of that parade — who wanted it. They pushed, and Kerr let them. They got 73. Was that lack of rest down the stretch the reason they were down 3-1 to Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Finals, then blew a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals against Cleveland? Certainly not, there were plenty of other bigger factors (hello LeBron James), but it may have played some role. Clearly, the team thinks it did, based on their words and actions.

However, the Warriors still want the No. 1 seed in the West and will make that a goal. The question is, with an excellent regular season team in San Antonio — one that had a better point differential than the Warriors last season, then they added Pau Gasol — how many wins will it take to get the top seed in the West? 65? More? How hard will the Warriors and Spurs push to get home court throughout?

The Warriors aren’t going for the record, but the top of the West is still going to be an interesting place.

Mike D’Antoni declares James Harden the Rockets’ point guard (‘points guard’)

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James Harden is no longer the NBA’s best shooting guard.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said Harden – who averaged 29.0 points and 7.5 assists per game last season – is now Houston’s point guard, though D’Antoni added it wouldn’t be a big adjustment.

D’Antoni, via ClutchFans:

With James, we’ll make a cheap joke. He’ll be a points guard.

We just renamed it. You guys got something to write about.

Harden already controlled the ball a ton, taking primary playmaking and distributing responsibilities last season. This just gets the ball into his hands quicker and should allow the Rockets to play faster, a key component of D’Antoni’s offense.

Of course, D’Antoni’s offense functioned best when Steve Nash – more of a pure passer – ran it with the Suns. Harden won’t duplicate that. His passing ability is more predicated on taking advantage of his scoring threat. But Harden – who, like Nash, is an excellent ball-handler – could make the offense hum in his own way.

Even though D’Antoni is trying to downplay the position switch, it’s a notable shift. Harden fully commanding the offense is a grand experiment with major upside (and potential for a rocky downside).

This will also allow Houston to use Patrick Beverley (historically a point guard) or Eric Gordon (historically a shooting guard) in the backcourt with Harden, allowing a more flexible rotation.