Los Angeles Lakers Introduce Dwight Howard

The Inbounds: Time for non-contenders to readjust their timelines

36 Comments

Welcome to The Inbounds, touching on a big idea of the day. It could be news, it could be history, it could be a tangent, it could be love. OK, it’s probably not love. Enjoy.

One thing that frustrates me about the NBA more than anything else is how small the list of title contenders is.  In the NFL, roughly 20 franchises begin the season with a legitimate shot at the title. In MLB, because of the way rosters, production, and individual games can shift, the group is just as wide. But in the NBA, it’s never more than really six teams, and that’s in a good year.

But now, with how things have shaken out over the past two years, the list is even smaller. Superstar teams were all the rage, now they’re the standard. If you had one great star and a good supporting cast, you could make the Finals. Now if you don’t have at least two, you’re not even in the conversation. As I wrote last week, the NBA’s arms race is out of control.

The best team in the NBA features one of the following: 1. the best player in the NBA, the second best shooting guard in the NBA and a top-ten power forward, 2. the best scorer in the NBA, two NBA All-Stars, and three members of the 2012 Olympic gold medal team (and a member of the 2012 Olympic silver medal team), or 3. Three future Hall-of-Famers, the second best shooting guard in NBA history, a former two-time MVP, the best center in the NBA, and a power forward who was the best big man in the league two years ago.

So yeah, the bar’s kind of high.

You can narrow the list of contenders in the NBA next season to essentially the Heat, the Thunder, and the Lakers. It’s possible a team comes out like the Mavericks  and surprises, but early on in the 2011 season, it was clear they would be on the list. Celtics fans would demand a spot on that list, but in reality, given the age of their most important pieces and the relative ability of their supporting cast. Pacers fans are wisely too self-aware to include themselves on that list. You can throw the Spurs on the list if you want, I don’t, because I’ve been bludgeoned to death by the factual accuracy of the “defense wins championships” cliche. Clippers? No. Grizzlies? No way. Nuggets? Nope. The Bulls? Derrick Rose is too much of a question mark to qualify.

The Knicks and Nets pass the starpower smell test, but they don’t stack up with the top teams in their conference. Making the Eastern Conference Finals is possible for either one, but winning the title is an entirely different level. And that kind of shows where we’re at. You can make the Conference Finals, be one of the last four teams, and not be a title contender.

So think about that. Twenty-seven franchises, if accurately assessing their chances, enter the season with no realistic hope at a title. There are certainly possibilities of exceptions. Injuries, major leaps, magical matchup issues. It’s true that “anything can happen in sports,” it just doesn’t, you know, seem to a lot of the time in the NBA. And every bit of starpower accumulation makes the road that much tougher.

But in truth, this is a good thing for the league. Interest is always highest when there are a few select elite teams, as there were in the 80’s. And Miami vs. the Lakers is the dream that David Stern drifts through in a candy cane and marshmallow haze each night. There have been complaints in the past about the lack of truly great teams in the league. That’s no longer an issue.

But what about everyone else? The star power’s gone. It’s taken. You’re not getting Dwight Howard, you’re not getting Steve Nash, you’re not getting Andrew Bynum (most likely). You’re almost certainly not getting Chris Paul. You’re not getting Deron Williams. At least not for a few years, in either case. So these teams, like Denver, Philadelphia, Dallas, Indiana, even Minnesota and Memphis, have to reassess their priorities. In reality, maybe it’s a good thing that this stratification has occurred.

Before, if you weren’t in contention for a title, you were a failure. And there will still be that talk from traditional columnists and certainly from the team’s management to the public. No one wants to hear “We’re aiming for fifth best.” But title contention isn’t just a huge challenge anymore. It’s a near-impossibility. Denver has built a playoff team featuring an All-Star with great players at every position, and it’s not close to a title. So there has to be a re-evaluation of the timelines. The goal should not be to “win now.” No one is winning now, except for those three teams at the top. If you want to aim to be that team that defies the odds, dares to dream, and captures the glory, go ahead. But it’s going to be expensive, and it’s going to cost you long-term.

Instead, teams need to focus on 2015. Yes, that’s right. 2015. By then, the luxury tax will have started to take its toll. Dwyane Wade will be getting into his middle-30’s, LeBron James will be 30, and the Lakers will have either disbanded or had to reconfigure (probably by getting Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, a  clone of Michael Jordan and Megatron, since that’s apparently what they’re capable of doing whenever they want to; oh, and they’ll only trade Darius Morris for it). The Thunder will have had to make the tough choices about their rosters, and if they haven’t won a title by then, frustration will set in. I’m not kidding, you honestly need to target three years from now as your first opportunity to win the title.

So that means getting the younger players as much as you can, trying to squeeze out any possible stars, getting lottery picks for 2014 and 2015, and above all, managing expectations. I’m not advocating the Nuggets or Sixers blow it up. We’ve seen the rebuilding model as too unstable. It’s a good approach, as we see with the Hornets (who are going to be in a great position in 2015, by the way, if they play their cards right), but it can also be disastrous (say hi, Bobcats fans!). The Nuggets can win now, make the playoffs, hope for that miraculous season to come around, while also legitimately plotting their way to 2015. But let me put it this way. If you’re Memphis, and you consider the reason that you’re paying all this money, the largest payroll in franchise history by my bet,  for a title contender? It’s time to think about moving some parts. You need to put a price tag on “Conference Finalist” and aim for that. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Being a great team that doesn’t win a title happens all the time. Charles Barkley was on about six of them. But this starpower migration has created a situation that is untenable for teams who are not elite.

Fans need to understand this, too. It’s not that your team is failing you or mismanaged, necessarily, if they’re a playoff team that isn’t a title contender. It’s just not possible. We’re legitimately out of difference-makers. There will always be good players you can get. Paul Millsap is going to test free agency. DeMarcus Cousins is never going to be in a stable position until he matures, if that occurs (and he’s well worth the price). So there will be chances. But the bar has been raised to a level that most teams, and let’s be honest, most markets, can’t compete with. If your team isn’t a bottom-dweller, you might want to be happy, and if they’re clearly planning for the future, even better. It’s a time for patience, something players, ownes, and fans rarely express.

But this is the world we live in. If you’re not Voltron, it’s better to just patrol your planet than try and defend the galaxy.

The robots have just gotten too big.

Jordan Clarkson says he wants to return to Lakers, play for Luke Walton

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 13: Jordan Clarkson of the Los Angeles Lakers is introduced for the Taco Bell Skills Challenge during NBA All-Star Weekend 2016 at Air Canada Centre on February 13, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. 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)
Getty Images
1 Comment

Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson is a restricted free agent, and he is the kind of quality rotation player that teams with cash to burn may well try to poach. The Lakers have the right to match and likely will unless the offer is way over the top. But make no mistake, Clarkson will go with the team that offers him the most money.

That’s July, right now Clarkson is saying the right things about wanting to stay with the Lakers and play for new coach Luke Walton.

Clarkson was interviewed by Chris McGee of Time Warner Cable, as reported by lakersnation.com.

I want to stay in LA….I don’t really look at it as me being a free agent; I want to be here…

He (Luke) called me a few days after he got hired. We talked about the offensive system, what he sees in us young guys, where he sees the organization, the style we’re gonna play. I’m excited for him to come and work with us.

Most likely he gets a chance, the Lakers want to keep him. They see him as part of the future (or at least as an asset they can trade to get parts for their future). He’s saying all the right things to make Laker nation happy.

But it’s going to be about the money. It always is.

DeMarre Carroll was playing through a litany of injuries in playoffs

TORONTO, ON - MAY 23: DeMarre Carroll #5 of the Toronto Raptors defends LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first quarter in game four of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 23, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Getty Images
1 Comment

Toronto’s DeMarre Carroll was unquestionably terrible in the Eastern Conference Finals.

He shot just 30 percent overall and 19 percent from three. They brought him in as a “3&D” guy to slow down players like LeBron James, but he didn’t even register as a pest on LeBron’s radar. Heck, at one point Richard Jefferson blew past Carroll on the drive.

But as always, there is context. Remember that Carroll came back from knee surgery just for the playoffs, and that was far from the only injury he was dealing with, reports Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star.

Apparently Carroll had everything but leprosy.

Did the gamble pay off? Carroll didn’t play well all playoffs, but the Raptors did reach the Eastern Conference Finals. It depends on perspective.

But Carroll needs to get healthy this summer and earn that $45 million over three years still left on his deal.

DeMar DeRozan doesn’t sound like guy looking to leave Toronto

TORONTO, ON - MAY 27:  DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors reacts in the third quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Air Canada Centre on May 27, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. 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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Getty Images
6 Comments

DeMar DeRozan will be a free agent come July 1, and in a market flooded with money he’s going to have options. His name has been linked through rumors to his hometown Lakers all season, but they will be far from the only team making a call.

However, DeRozan doesn’t sound like a guy looking to leave Toronto.

He has said multiple times before how much he wanted to finish what was started north of the border and how much he loved the team and city. He said all of it again after the Raptors were eliminated from the playoffs by the Cavaliers on Friday. Check out this exit interview quote when DeRozan was asked if he could find a better situation than the one he’s in, via Zach Harper at CBSSports.com.

“I don’t think so,” DeRozan said. “My mindset has always been Toronto. I always preached it. I was passionate about it when we was losing. When we was terrible, I said I’m going to stick through this whole thing and I want to be that guy who brings this organization to where it is now. I definitely don’t want to switch up after we win.”

Or this.

But how appealing is Los Angeles?

“How appealing? I grew up in L.A.,” DeRozan said. “That’s my home. There’s not a part of L.A. I haven’t seen. I don’t get caught up into it. I let whoever comes up with that say what they want to say. Only thing appealing to me is the things I’ve done in this organization and the things that can be done here. And that’s always been my mindset.”

What should you read into this? If the money is equal, he’s going to choose Toronto over Los Angeles or any other destination.

But make no mistake, this is about the money. In most summers I would not say DeRozan is a max player, but in this summer with so much money flooding the market someone is going to offer it — and it’s probably the Raptors. Despite the holes in his game — lack of outside shooting, inconsistent defense — if the Raptors lose him for nothing they take a big step back. I expect next season he will be putting on a Raptors jersey again.

But July is always an unpredictable month.

Report: Raptors to begin contract extension talks with coach Dwane Casey

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 25:  Dwane Casey of the Toronto Raptors looks on from the sideline in the first quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 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 Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
8 Comments

Entering the season, Dwane Casey’s seat was a little warm. He was not hired by the GM now in charge, and last season the Raptors had taken a step back, especially defensively.

After Toronto just ended the greatest season in franchise history — 56 wins and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals — Casey’s job is safe. In fact, the Raptors want to make sure he sticks around a while longer, reports Marc Stein at ESPN.

The Raptors and coach Dwane Casey are expected to soon begin talks on a contract extension, league sources said Friday night after Toronto’s season ended with a 113-87 loss to the Cavaliers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.

Casey has one season left on his current contract at the Raptors’ option for $4 million next season.

Both sides want to get a deal done, which usually means things happen quickly.

This is a smart move by the Raptors, clearly Casey connects with this team and knows how to get the most out of them, and he adapted well in the playoffs looking for rosters and lineups that worked. He’s the right coach for this team.