Los Angeles Lakers Introduce Dwight Howard

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

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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.

Isaiah Thomas on pace to break modern-era fourth-quarter scoring record

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With seven and a half minutes left, Isaiah Thomas drained a 3-pointer, held up his left wrist and stared at it.

It was time.

His time.

Thomas scored 17 fourth-quarter points in the Celtics’ win over the Hornets yesterday.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” Thomas said. “It just surprises everybody else.”

It shouldn’t any longer.

Boston has won seven of eight, and in that span, Thomas has scored most of the Celtics’ fourth-quarter points. He has pushed his fourth-quarter scoring average to 10.1 for the season – putting him on track to break the modern-era record.

Kobe Bryant scored 9.5 fourth-quarter points per game in 2006, the most in the previous 20 years (as far back as NBA.com has data). The leaderboard:

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Russell Westbrook is also on track to surpass Kobe and join this rarified air. LeBron James, Tracy McGrady, Kevin Durant and Dwyane Wade are the only other players to average even eight fourth-quarter points per game in a season over the previous 20 years. Not even Michael Jordan (7.1 in 1997, 7.3 in 1998) did it.

Boston’s offense has blasted into the stratosphere with Thomas on the court in the fourth quarter, scoring 122.1 points per 100 possessions. However, the Celtics allow even more with him on the floor in the final period (122.8 points per 100 possessions). The 5-foot-9 point guard has limits.

But where those limits exist when it comes to his clutch scoring – we haven’t found them yet.

Charley Rosen: I’m not Phil Jackson’s mouthpiece

New York Knicks president Phil Jackson speaks to reporters during a news conference in Greenburgh, N.Y., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Derek Fisher was fired as New York Knicks coach Monday, with his team having lost five straight and nine of 10 to fall well back in the Eastern Conference playoff race. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
AP Photo/Seth Wenig
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Writer Charley Rosen describes himself as a “long-time friend and confidant” of Knicks president Phil Jackson. They coached and roomed together in the Continental Basketball Association decades ago. Since, they’ve collaborated on books and articles.

So, when Rosen wrote, “The only sure thing is that Carmelo Anthony has outlived his usefulness in New York,” Anthony took it as a shot from Jackson.

Frank Isola of the New York Daily News:

Rosen insists that unfair to him and Jackson.

Rosen at FanRag:

So, although I have often been called Phil’s mouthpiece by fans and some in the media, I have never consulted him about the content or general themes of any of the thousands of columns I’ve written for various sports web sites.

NEVER!

The only obvious exceptions being the interviews I conducted with him.

Although some of my opinions may be congruent with Phil’s, they are strictly my own. For better or for worse.

So, then, my views on Carmelo Anthony, for example, come from carefully watching and analyzing his play throughout his career.

I’m not in the business of parroting a party line, or of stroking players with whom I’ve had friendly contact.

As part of his Anthony critique, Rosen wrote, “It’s understood that he’d only accept being dealt to the Cavaliers or the Clippers.” Where did Rosen get that if not Jackson? Rosen invites questions by making statements like that without attribution.

Rosen’s history with Jackson also attracts scrutiny. So much of Rosen’s writing career has leaned on Jackson for exclusive access. He can’t have both that and the benefit of the doubt about his separation from Jackson. Even if Rosen wants to be objective, we all have biases. Rosen seems far too close to Jackson to evaluate him – and, by extension, the Knicks – properly. After all, when evaluating the team beyond Anthony, Rosen wrote:

PHIL JACKSON has pushed the right buttons

PBT Midseason Awards: James Harden or Russell Westbrook for MVP?

Houston Rockets' James Harden (13) hugs his former teammate, Oklahoma City Thunder's Russell Westbrook after an NBA basketball game in Houston, Thursday Jan. 5, 2017. The Rockets defeated the Thunder 118-116. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)
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We are at the NBA season’s midpoint, which means we finally have seen enough games and compiled enough stats to start a conversation about the NBA end-of-season awards. Nothing is close to locked in yet, this is more like a horse race that is just coming out of the backstretch and starting the sweeping turn towards the finish line — a lot of things can change, and there will be players making late runs at some of these awards.

That’s not going to stop us from making picks for all the major categories — plus the best album of 2016. Because we can. Below are the picks for Kurt Helin, Dan Feldman, and Dane Carbaugh of NBC Sports.

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER

Kurt Helin: Russell Westbrook
This is a coin flip between Westbrook and James Harden, with half a season to decide who gets the hardware. Right now I’d have a very slight lean to Westbrook, who is not just averaging a triple-double but has the Thunder in the playoffs on a 48-win pace — when he sits the Thunder are 17.5 points per 100 possessions worse (yes, that stat has noise and speaks to team depth, but point is without him this team is screwed).

Dan Feldman: James Harden
Russell Westbrook is averaging a triple-double — and Harden is still having a(n every so slightly) better season, which is just incredible. Unless Westbrook taps into his higher defensive potential more regularly, Harden’s efficiency gives him the edge.

Dane Carbaugh: James Harden
There’s obviously a strong case for Russell Westbrook here, but the thing that brings me back to James Harden is this: he’s increased his assists per-100 possessions this season despite his usage only going up by 1.5%. That’s ridiculous, and a prime example of the many ways Harden has been extra efficient this season.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin: Joel Embiid
Before the season I didn’t think he could win it because he was going to be on a minutes restriction, plus there would be pushback to having a third-year player win the award, but this race isn’t even close. Embed still got a lot of work to do defensively, but he’s far ahead of Malcolm Brogdon/Jamal Murray/Buddy Hield/Domantas Sabonis and the rest. Plus, Embiid is just fun to watch. And the league could use more fun.

Dan Feldman: Joel Embiid
It appeared Embiid would run away with this award, but Malcolm Brogdon has made it competitive. Still, Embiid’s talent, even if less refined, has made a bigger impact so far. He’s a force defensively, and his offense is diverse, albeit sloppy.

Dane Harbaugh: Joel Embiid
Not voting for Embiid here is voting against fun. It’s voting against hope. It’s voting against aesthetics. It’s voting against the culture. There’s real evidence Embiid is going to be a force in the league barring health for years to come, and to see it on display this year in unpolished form has been everything we wanted from The Process.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin: Rudy Gobert
He is the anchor of the best defense in the NBA this season, and he’s not a slow-footed big who you can destroy when he gets dragged into pick-and-rolls (he can hold his own). There are others such as Kawhi Leonard still in this race.

Dan Feldman: Rudy Gobert
The Jazz center erases the paint and is more than adequate when pulled outside. Teams haven’t found a way to run him off the court, the first test for any rim protector in this era. That allows Gobert’s interior skills to shine. Draymond Green is within striking distance, but this is Gobert’s award to lose.

Dane Carbaugh: Rudy Gobert
It’s hard to argue that Rudy Gobert is not the DPOY. He’s the anchor for the NBA’s most efficient defensive unit and he’s not only a paint clogger but a shot blocker that doesn’t give up rebounding chances as he chases swats. Utah is extremely fun to watch on defense — gasp! — and Gobert is a big reason why.

SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin: Eric Gordon
This is the most open race on the board, but right now what Gordon brings Houston has him in front. This is the Gordon the Pelicans thought they were paying for (injuries undid him there), averaging 17.9 points per game and shooting 41.1 percent from three. Lou Williams had the lead for me but has slipped of late (as have the Lakers).

Dan Feldman: Enes Kanter
I did little more than pick a name here. This race is WIDE open with serious consideration also going to Greg Monroe, Eric Gordon, Lou Williams, Patty Mills, Jon Leuer, Marreese Speights, Tyler Johnson, Dwight Powell, Wilson Chandler and…

Dane Carbaugh: Eric Gordon
It’s sort of unfair that the Houston Rockets get to bring Eric Gordon off the bench, and I bet most NBA opponents would agree. Gordon is not only having a great comeback season as a scorer — averaging better than 17 points per-game — but he’s doing it efficiently as well. Daryl Morey hit a home run with Gordon and Ryan Anderson this season.

COACH OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin: Mike D’Antoni
Note to Lakers/Knicks management (and fans): Yes you can win with Mike D’Antoni’s system and him as coach, but you have to give him players that fit his system. He’s not bending. But when you give him his players — James Harden at the point, healthy seasons from Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon — he’s going to win a lot of games. And the man is a groundbreaking coach.

Dan Feldman: Mike D’Antoni
D’Antoni’s touch has brought out the best in the Rockets’ offense, starting with the subtle tweak of making James Harden the point guard. Houston’s defense has even neared league average, a credit to how D’Antoni organized his staff. His coaching prowess is limited to players who fit his style, but the Rockets do, and D’Antoni is doing a very nice job with them.

Dane Carbaugh: Mike D’Antoni
Let’s put Houston’s rise to the upper tier of the Western Conference on hold for a second. Is there anyone who was more unfairly written off than Mike D’Antoni? His SSoL Suns were the prerunner to today’s modern NBA offenses, but because of some awkward years in New York and LA with some mismatched rosters, everyone wrote him off. Apparently he’s been in the lab, with a pen and a pad, trying to get the Rockets off the ground. It’s worked by turning Harden into a point guard and surrounding him with shooters who get rid of the ball like it’s made of molten rock. I, for one, am here for SSoL II: Electric Boogaloo.

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER OF YEAR

Kurt Helin: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Entering his fourth season, his improvements have been as big as his strides. Jason Kidd made the brilliant move (in the second half of last season) to move him to a point-forward position and put the ball in his hands, and he is driving and dishing with the best of them. He leads the NBA in points in the paint per game at 13.4 — more than DeMarcus Cousins, Hassan Whiteside, Anthony Davis and the rest of them.

Dan Feldman: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Antetokounmpo is the runaway winner here. He has improved so much, so quickly, he’s probably due for regression to the mean. But he still has plenty of leeway to come down to earth and still cruise to this award.

Dane Carbaugh: Giannis Antetokounmpo
I think many of us were expecting Andrew Wiggins to grab this spot, but if it weren’t for Giannis Antetokounmpo’s meteoric rise the Timberwolves guard might come in second to his own teammate in Zach LaVine. Meanwhile, the Greek Freak has garnered the second most All-Star forward votes in the East, (only to LeBron James has more). If you aren’t watching Bucks games, you’re missing out.

BONUS: BEST ALBUM OF 2016

Kurt Helin: A Moon Shaped Pool (Radiohead)
Dan Feldman: Lemonade (Beyoncé)
Dane Carbaugh: Still Brazy (YG)

Draymond Green tells Kyrie Irving: ‘I know your moves’ (video)

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Only Draymond Green can endearingly brag about his defensive intelligence while admitting getting fooled on a play.

In the Warriors’ blowout win over the Cavaliers last night, Green guarded Kyrie Irving and anticipated the Cleveland guard would go one way. After Irving went the other way to score, the two shared a moment during a stoppage.

“I know your  moves,” Green said.

“I know,” replied Irving, whose vast offensive repertoire allowed him to find an unexpected counter.