Which teams could crash the Thunder/Heat finals next year?


These finals didn’t feel like a one-time thing.

One year from now the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder could well be back on the NBA’s biggest stage. This is a budding rivalry. Between LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Between the flashy East Coast city and the solid Midwestern city. Miami’s stars are in their primes (and likely will draw some quality veteran free agents willing to chase a ring). The Thunder core is still all just 23 and they are getting better every time they step on the court.

A full on rivalry like this would be good for the league, and if this finals was any indication, good for us fans.

But what teams are waiting in the wings to crash this party?

A rematch may be the logical pick but it is far from a lock. There are teams on the cusp of this dance, maybe more free agency — and the Dwight Howard trade we all expect — changes the landscape this summer.

Which teams could spoil David Stern’s plans for a rematch?

The Chicago Bulls. We all expected an epic Eastern Conference finals between the Bulls and Heat, only to watch that get torn up along with Derrick Rose’s ACL. But Rose likely comes back the middle of next season and will have his legs under him when the playoffs come around. The Bulls defend like beasts, they have good athletes, they are intense like their coach Tom Thibodeau, they have had the best record in the East two. They pose a serious challenge to the Heat.

The San Antonio Spurs. They have evolved into an offensive force led by Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Turns out Tim Duncan has a few miles left on the legs after all. They need to find some athletic, younger role players to go with the guys they already have, guys that fit the system, they could put together another run. Remember this team has had the best record in the West the last couple years, they blew through the first couple rounds of the playoffs this year looking dominant and they could be back.

The Los Angeles Clippers. This is the other up-and-coming team in the West, a team on the same learning curve as the Thunder just a few steps behind. But they have the best point guard in the game, they have a wildly athletic front line led by Blake Griffin, and they have some depth. If they can land a good two guard and upgrade their role players this summer, and if Vinny Del Negro is capable of leading them, the Clippers could be the second best team in the West. Or, Donald Sterling could screw the whole thing up.

The Indiana Pacers. They were the third best team in the East, they have a young core with Roy Hibbert, Danny Granger and Darren Collison who should be better next year. And they have cap space — a lot of cap space. If this team can lure or trade for one more elite player (someone like a Deron Williams) they would become contenders in the East.

Teams that if they make some big/key moves in the offseason and everything breaks their way could be in this conversation, too: Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks, New York Knicks, Memphis Grizzlies, Philadelphia 76ers.

Stan Van Gundy goes off on officials: “We got absolutely screwed all night”

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The Pistons were likely to lose to the red-hot Trail Blazers on the road, and that came to be Saturday night 100-87, Portland 12th straight win. The Pistons shot 38.8 percent for the game and had a dreadful offensive rating of 93.8 (points per 100 possessions).

Portland is one the top five defensive teams in the NBA this season, but that’s not what Detroit coach Stan Van Gundy thought was the problem — he laid the blame on the officiating.

That’s going to be a fine.

Van Gundy is frustrated — with this game and with this season. So are Pistons fans, and seemingly so is Detroit owner Tom Gores after his lukewarm vote of confidence in Van Gundy recently. They should be, this team is a disappointment and the Blake Griffin trade was a big swing that has yet to work out. The Pistons are going to miss the playoffs. Around the league, the sense is that Van Gundy will lose his GM job to former super agent Arn Tellem, who was brought in to guide the Pistons into their new building but now whose talents would better serve the basketball side of the operation. The only question is will Van Gundy still be coaching in Detroit next season — just coaching, like Doc Rivers with the Clippers — or of the change will be more sweeping than that.

Hornets’ coach gives savage, frank assessment of Willy Hernangomez

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When Willy Hernangomez was not getting much run with the Knicks this season, especially as injuries opened up space in the front line rotation, there were questions as to why. Then the #freeWillyHernangomez movement popped up.

Eventually, Hernangomez was traded to the Hornets where… he barely plays. He’s gotten more than 10 minutes just once since coming to Charlotte.

What gives? Hornet’s coach Steve Clifford didn’t hold back when answering that question to Marc Berman of the New York Post.

“If you were in one place and didn’t play much, if you want to play more in the next place, I’d say work harder and kill myself,” Clifford said at the Hornets shootaround at the Players Association’s midtown headquarters. “The reality is he wasn’t playing here for a reason. He’s got to change things…

“He’s not up to speed on what we’re doing to play a lot,” Clifford said. “It’s been a little bit of a struggle for him. He’s smart, but he’s not this high-flier, phenomenal, natural athlete able to make up ground. He’s got to be on top of things, especially on the defensive end. If he’s not detailed defensively, he’s not that [athletic] guy…

“To be an every-night player, and I’ve told him this, he’s got to improve his shooting,” Clifford said. “He is right now, in my opinion, a back-to-the-basket player who can pass. But the reality is his passing doesn’t come into play until they have to get close to him and know he’s not going to knock down a shot. And he’s not a knockdown shooter.”

Well then.

Just to be clear he’s got to put in a lot more effort, become smarter on the defensive end, and improve his shooting. That’s a healthy off-season checklist.

Hernangomez has another year on his contract at a very reasonable $1.5 million before the Hornets have to make any kind of decision on him, which means whoever is the new GM in Charlotte he will choose to keep Hernangomez around. For now. He flashed potential his rookie season with the Knicks, when asked to play strictly to his strengths, but Clifford and the Hornets — and basically every other team in the NBA — is going to ask more of him.

Clifford was clear, as no doubt he has been clear to Hernangomez (Clifford is as straight a shooter as the league has). The ball is in Hernangomez’s court.

Glen “Big Baby” Davis denies drug charges while eating Popeyes on a charter plane

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Best. Denial. Ever.

Last month, former NBA player Glen “Big Baby” Davis was arrested last month at a hotel in a suburb of Baltimore by Jimmy McNulty and Lt. Daniels with 126 grams of marijuana and more than $96,000 in cash, according to a police report. He has been charged with possession and intent to distribute.

Davis has declared his innocence in the best denial video ever — eating Popeyes chicken and flashing cash and a championship ring.

I have no idea whether Davis is guilty or not, I was not at a Hampton’s Inn outside Baltimore last month. The court system will sort that out, that is what it’s there for.

But I know a brilliant video when I see one. This is it.

Report: Michele Roberts to seek second contract as players’ union head

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Michele Roberts entered the NBA’s player union in a tumultuous time — long-time union president Billy Hunter had been ousted in a rancorous fight, the union felt adrift, and negotiations with the NBA on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement were looming (and players felt they had been screwed in the last CBA, following the lockout).

Roberts, the first female head of a professional sports labor union, settled things down. She cleaned up the union finances and made them more transparent to players, she worked hard to establish relationships with the players, and while she rattled some sabers with the NBA in negotiations, she also worked in a non-combative way with Adam Silver and team (unlike the Billy Hunter/David Stern relationship) and got a deal done the players liked without a lockout or labor mess.

Roberts’ contract with the union is up, but she is going to ask for a new deal — one she likely gets — reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

With an original four-year agreement set to expire in September, Michele Roberts plans to seek a new contract as the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, sources tell ESPN…

Roberts had strongly considered staying in the NBPA’s executive director role for only the length of her original contract — and expressed that to the union’s senior membership — but has recently decided to pursue a longer tenure, sources said.

NBPA president Chris Paul played a significant part in Roberts’ hiring in July 2014 and he has built a strong working relationship with Roberts.

Roberts also has a good relationship with the star-heavy executive committee of the union — CP3, LeBron James, Stephen Curry and others — making it likely she gets a new deal.

As for what’s next, at the front of that list Roberts is working with Silver and others on reforming the NBA’s one-and-done rule (it was supposed to be part of the CBA negotiations but was too big and complex an issue to fold into that timeline).

Neither the owners or players can opt out of the CBA for four more years (and if neither side does it runs a couple more beyond that) so labor peace will continue in the NBA for a while.