Russell Westbrook, LeBron James

NBA Finals Preview: Miami Heat vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

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SEASON RECORDS

Miami 46-20 (2 seed in East)
Oklahoma City 47-19 (2 seed in West)

SEASON SERIES

The teams split their two meetings. Miami won the last meeting on April 4 98-93 because LeBron James had a monster game and Heat players were knocking down their spot up looks. In the meeting just more than a week before (March 25) the Thunder won handily when they got 19 points from Serge Ibaka and 16 from Kendrick Perkins.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession/NBA rank)

Miami: offense 106.6 (8th); defense 100.2 (4th)
Oklahoma City: offense 109.8 (2nd); defense 103.2 (10th)

THREE KEY HEAT:

LeBron James: He deserved to be the MVP in the regular season and he has continued that level of play into the playoffs — 30.8 points a game on 50.8 percent shooting with a PER of 31.2, plus playing a key role on defense. Incredible. And none of that will matter for his legacy if the Heat don’t win it all — no matter how he plays he will take the blame with many fans if the Heat come up short in this series. He was not comfortable being painted as the villain last season and this finals will be contrasted as the “good” Thunder against the “evil” Heat by many. Wrongly, but that will be the perception. He will have to deal with that, or at least tune it out.

Bottom line for Miami — LeBron simply cannot be good in this series, he needs to be spectacular for the Heat to win.

Dwyane Wade: He has been good in the playoffs — 22.9 points per game on 47 percent shooting — but he also needs to elevate his level of play if the Heat are to win the series. OKC brings a lot of long, athletic defenders to the table and Wade will have Thabo Sefolosha draped over him. He needs to get into the paint, break down the Thunder defense. At the other end of the court he needs to help Miami create a pressure defense that slows the Thunder’s powerful offense or this series will go poorly for Miami. Normally we’d expect this from Wade, but he’s clearly been slowed by something (knee injury still bothering him?) and he has to get back to his elite leve of play at both ends to win this series.

Chris Bosh: We saw in the fourth quarter of Game 7 against Boston why he is key — defensive big men can’t hang near the basket and defend the rim if they have to respect Bosh out to the three point line. As Erik Spoelstra has long said, Bosh may not be the best player on the Heat but he is the most important — he opens up driving lanes for Wade and LeBron. Expect Bosh to get a lot of touches as the Thunder use both Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins to defend him, but both of those guys want to be in the paint. He also needs to crash the boards this series.

THREE KEY THUNDER:

Kevin Durant: The best pure scorer in the game today, he has a silky smooth jumper with an impossible to block release point and seemingly unlimited range. (That said, he was not the MVP this year — LeBron put up similar offensive numbers with more efficiency and had to do more on defense. This was not Durant’s year for that hardware, move on.) Miami is going to have some athletic, long defenders on him — including LeBron — and Durant is going to have to continue to score at a high rate. He is going to have to make plays late in close games. He is the heart of the Thunder offense.

James Harden: He is more than just a stunning beard. He is is the Thunder’s big advantage in this series — Miami gets no production out of its bench, Harden is the NBA Sixth Man of the Year averaging 17.6 points per game through the playoffs. He is their best playmaker and is shooting 44 percent from three in the post season. Miami has to find a way to account for him because when Miami goes to its bench they get worse, while Harden makes the Thunder better. If he has a big series Miami will struggle to match him.

Serge Ibaka: He has become an amazingly efficient shooter in these playoffs — his midrange jumper is falling consistently and that just gives Oklahoma City another offensive weapon. And they don’t need one. When OKC beat Miami in the regular season he had 19 points, do that again four times and the Thunder will win. But his real key will be on the defensive end — the long armed shot blocker will spend time on both Chris Bosh and LeBron James this series. If he can slow them down, make them less efficient (particularly James), it will be hard for the Heat to keep up with the Thunder’s scoring.

OUTLOOK

This could be an epic finals. These are two very athletic teams who have guys that can simply take over a game and not be stopped. These are two very entertaining teams to watch, two teams who wouldn’t mind a track meet at times. Miami’s ability to defend can be key, but they have been inconsistent with execution at both ends all season and all playoffs long — if they have lapses against Oklahoma City the price will be severe.

Oklahoma City has been a great offensive team that plays enough defense to win, but when Miami has the ball the Heat will face some challenges. Oklahoma City brings some very long and athletic defenders to the table in Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka, plus they have the very aggressive Russell Westbrook and the long arms of Kevin Durant. They contest everything and get in the passing lanes with that length. Then they use those turnovers to get out and run. Miami has to get into the teeth of the defense with penetration — if they settle for contested midrange shots they will lose. Well, one game LeBron will go off and drain those like he did against the Celtics in Game 6, but the Heat cannot sustain their offense that way. They need to get inside and kick out to Bosh and Chalmers to knock down shots.

Role players knocking down jumpers is key for the Heat – when they beat OKC in the regular season they shot better than 50 percent on their spot-up looks, when they lost the week before they shot 7-21 on spot up looks. Those have to fall for the Heat.

Oklahoma City will put up points, this is a powerful offensive team, but they have not run into a defense this athletic before. If Miami can pressure rushed shots and create turnovers to run on they will have an advantage. But they have to finish those transition looks — Oklahoma City has athletes that will run and challenge you on the break. This series is going to see some great chase down blocks, just watch.

Miami is in the same boat it has been the last two rounds of the playoffs — they can win this series if LeBron James and/or Dwyane Wade is playing exceptional basketball, but if those are merely good it is not enough. Miami has to play great defense, they need a role player to step up. But they can win this. The problem is the margin for error against the Thunder is much smaller than they have seen all playoffs. They cannot take halves off, they cannot coast. If Miami plays up to its potential they can win this, but are they capable of that?

PREDICTION

Thunder in six.

In the last round, down 2-0 to the Spurs, Oklahoma City was able to make defensive switches called for by coach Scott Brooks and turn the tide of that series. San Antonio hadn’t lost in 20 games and the Thunder swept them the next four. OKC’s ball movement improved. They did what contenders do. They are playing at a very high level.

Miami has been good enough to move on, beating a resilient team with good defense in Boston, but they have done it with spurts of execution and good defense. They slumped the second half of the season and did not build good habits to bring into the playoffs, and this is where it will cost them. They will fall in the finals to a better team for the second straight year.

Lakers name Magic Johnson President of Basketball Operations

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 15:  Magic Johnson attends a ceremony honoring Jackie Robinson before the game between the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on April 15, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  All players are wearing #42 in honor of Jackie Robinson Day. (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)
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Magic Johnson essentially publicly anointed himself in charge of the Lakers’ front office.

Now, the Lakers are actually giving him the job.

Lakers release:

Los Angeles Lakers Governor Jeanie Buss announced today that the team has named Earvin “Magic” Johnson as President of Basketball Operations. In addition, General Manager Mitch Kupchak has been relieved of his duties, effective immediately. Furthermore, Jim Buss will no longer hold his role as Lakers Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations.

“Today I took a series of actions I believe will return the Lakers to the heights Dr. Jerry Buss demanded and our fans rightly expect,” Jeanie Buss said. “Effective immediately, Earvin Johnson will be in charge of all basketball operations and will report directly to me. Our search for a new General Manager to work with Earvin and Coach Luke Walton is well underway and we hope to announce a new General Manager in short order. Together, Earvin, Luke and our new General Manager will establish the foundation for the next generation of Los Angeles Lakers greatness.”

“It’s a dream come true to return to the Lakers as President of Basketball Operations working closely with Jeanie Buss and the Buss family,” said Earvin “Magic” Johnson. “Since 1979, I’ve been a part of the Laker Nation and I’m passionate about this organization. I will do everything I can to build a winning culture on and off the court. We have a great coach in Luke Walton and good young players. We will work tirelessly to return our Los Angeles Lakers to NBA champions.”

Jeanie Buss added, “I took these actions today to achieve one goal: Everyone associated with the Lakers will now be pulling in the same direction, the direction established by Earvin and myself. We are determined to get back to competing to win NBA championships again.”

Regarding Mitch Kupchak, Jeanie Buss stated, “We are grateful for the many contributions Mitch has made to the Lakers over the years and we wish him all the best.”

With regard to fellow owner and brother, Jim Buss, Ms. Buss said, “Jim loves the Lakers. Although he will no longer be responsible for basketball personnel decisions, he is an owner of this team and we share the same goal: returning the Lakers to the level of greatness our father demanded. Our fans deserve no less.”

In addition to the changes made within the basketball department, the Lakers also announced they have parted ways with John Black who had been the Lakers Vice President of Public Relations. Chief Operating Officer Tim Harris will immediately begin a search for a replacement. Jeanie Buss added, “We thank John for his many years of service.”

This closes an ugly chapter in which Jeannie Buss named Johnson as an advisor, and then he went about publicly trashing Jim Buss and Kupchack while evaluating them for her and clamoring for their front-office power.

Now, the real work begins. And that doesn’t mean calling Kobe Bryant.

Johnson inherits a team with plenty of young talent: D'Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and Ivica Zubac. That’s a great starting point.

But the Lakers also face significant hurdles back to the top.

They lose their 2017 and 2019 first-round picks if their 2017 first-round pick doesn’t land in the top three. The Lakers have the NBA’s third-worst record. In the past, Johnson has expressed an affinity for tanking.

The Lakers also have the burdensome contracts of Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov. Those make it tough to clear cap space to sign a star.

At least they can trade Lou Williams, who’s having a special season. The deadline is Thursday, so Johnson must hit the ground running.

These conditions are the effects of Jim Buss’ misguided pledge to jolt the Lakers back to contending. Their shortsighted moves and even bigger dreams backfired so spectacularly, they backed into several high draft picks — and at least chose well. While Kupchak’s overall tenure was positive, his approach had grown stale.

The Lakers needed a change in management. I’m just not convinced Johnson was the solution.

Would they have hired him if he didn’t play for them? Probably not. Does his playing experience with the Lakers specifically, as opposed to any team, better prepare him for this job? Probably not.

But even if Johnson were hired for the wrong reasons, he can still succeed.

He thrived in business after retirement by putting the right people around him, and he can do that here. Johnson obviously knows basketball, but managing a roster and all the salary-cap complexities is a different animal. He needs staff, including a general manager, more familiar with that.

Johnson will be the franchise’s new smiling face. But, for this to truly work, Johnson will have to build a winner the old-fashioned way: With savvy drafting, trading and signing.

Reports: Bulls telling teams they won’t trade Jimmy Butler

Chicago Bulls guard/forward Jimmy Butler, top, shoots over Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry during the overtime of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017, in Chicago. The Bulls won 123-118 in overtime. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
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The Bulls reportedly weren’t making Jimmy Butler available for a trade last month.

As the trade deadline approaches, it seems that hasn’t changed.

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

The teams that talked to the Chicago Bulls today were told, “Just about everybody on our roster is available, but Jimmy Butler is not.”

The Bulls are not obliged to stand by that, and there’s no indication they’ve assured Butler anything. If they’re offered a package more valuable than Butler, they’ll trade him.

But that’s a lot of value.

Butler is playing like a superstar, 27 and locked up for two more seasons after this one. Not many teams have the assets to trade for someone like that.

Plus, Chicago could use the designated-veteran-player rule to re-sign him. No other team would hold that advantage if it trades for him.

So, Butler is probably valued more by the Bulls than any other team. But if another team with significant assets makes a suitable offer, I doubt Butler remains unavailable.

Lakers’ Lou Williams provides smooth scoring, trade intrigue

DALLAS, TX - JANUARY 22:  Louis Williams #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers at American Airlines Center on January 22, 2017 in Dallas, Texas.  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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Lou Williams declared for the 2005 NBA draft out of high school and proclaimed, “The second round is not an option.”

He was drafted with the 15th pick of the second round.

“I used to have to run through everybody,” Williams said. “Now, I don’t feel like I do. Just trying to outsmart guys.”

The last guard drafted directly out of high school, Williams has quietly refined his game. His athleticism has declined with age, but gone too is a recklessness to his play. He largely makes the plays he can and doesn’t try to make the ones he can’t.

Williams is the Lakers’ best player. As a result, he’s also one of the league’s bigger trade chips as Thursday’s trade deadline approaches.

He leads the Lakers with 18.6 points per game, and they come in just 24.2 minutes per game. He makes that time count with a historic combination of volume and efficiency.

Both his usage percentage (30.6) and true shooting percentage (60.9) lead the team. The only regularly-used players to produce full seasons with a usage percentage of at least 30 and a true shooting percentage of at least 60 are or will be Hall of Famers:

Harden (again), Isaiah Thomas and Kawhi Leonard are also on pace to do it this year. All three were All-Stars.

Williams flies under the radar, because he usually comes off the bench for Los Angeles — though that offers special opportunity for recognition later in the season.

Already a Sixth Man of the Year winner (2015 with the Raptors), Williams leads eligible players in win shares this season:

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Williams and Dwight Powell (Mavericks) are the only reserves leading their teams in win shares.

In fact, Williams has been so much better than his teammates, he could maintain his team lead even if traded. His 5.1 win shares rank well ahead of the 3.3 by Nick Young (another trade candidate) and 2.2 by Larry Nance Jr.

But there’s still a relatively high likelihood he gets moved. The Lakers are focusing more on player development, and the 30-year-old Williams could help a team ready to win now.

He’s locked in for a bargain $7 million next season. So, his more-than-just-a-rental status could help the Lakers land a first-round pick.

“I just go out and play,” Williams said. “I let the powers make deals or if they don’t.”

There’s a patience in Williams’ game that has developed in recent years. He attributes some of it to a torn ACL in 2013. No longer as quick, the pick-and-roll ace has been forced to play smarter.

Williams has mostly eliminated long 2s from his game, getting more shots at the rim, 3-pointers and free throws. His craftiness fits the modern game.

But there are still concerns about how he’ll translate to a better team.

He’s a defensive liability, and his size limits paths to reliability on that end. Not only is he 6-foot-1, he often needs to play shooting guard because his playmaking for others is only so-so for a point guard.

But as poor as he’s been defensively (400th of 450 players in defensive real plus-minus), he has been even better offensively (13th in offensive real plus-minus behind only All-Stars and Nikola Jokic). Still, he relies heavily on drawing fouls, and his tricks might not be so effective during a playoff series with plenty of time to scout him.

There are risks in acquiring Williams. But getting another player having a special season — like, say, Jimmy Butler — would be tremendously more costly. As long as a team has a plan to accentuate Williams’ strengths and hide his weaknesses, he might be one of the best bargains on the trade market.

Paul George says he’s not motivated by opportunity to earn higher max

Eastern Conference forward Paul George of the Indiana Pacers (13) reacts during the second half of the NBA All-Star basketball game in New Orleans, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Max Becherer)
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NEW ORLEANS — The Pacers have already granted a standing max offer to Paul George.

So, if he wants to stay in Indiana, his potential paths look relatively straightforward:

If he makes an All-NBA team this season, he can sign a designated-veteran-player extension that would kick in in 2018-19 and projects be worth about $209 million over five years (about $42 million annually).

If he doesn’t make an All-NBA team this season, he can wait to sign and try again to make one next season. If he does, he can sign a new contract in 2018 that would be worth the same $209 million or so over the same five-year period.

I think it’s this simple: If he becomes eligible to become a designated veteran player, he’ll sign then. If not, 2018 free agency projects to offer a choice of about $179 million over five years (about $36 million annually) to re-sign or about $133 million over four years (about $33 million annually) to sign elsewhere — a more difficult decision.

George says he’s not thinking about earning the higher max.

“You want to be one of the best,” George said. “And that’s the only motivation. You want to be All-NBA. That’s what you strive for. That’s what you want to play for, to be recognized as one of the league’s best players.”

That’s no small challenge for George, who was one of 12 All-Star forwards this year, joining:

With only six All-NBA forward spots, George faces long odds this season — and no easy path next season.

But at least eligibility for the higher max coincides with one of his goals.

“It’s nice. It’s nice,” George said. “But that’s not the motivation you want to play for”