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.

Cody Zeller throws it down all over Bismack Biyombo (VIDEO)

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Nobody can stop the Zeller brothers!

Well, that’s not exactly true. But in this case, Bismack Biyombo tried and Cody Zeller threw it down with authority over him.

I’m not starting a “Cody Zeller for the dunk contest” campaign, but this was impressive.

Doc Rivers doesn’t think Clippers complain too much to referees

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 29: Doc Rivers of the Los Angeles Clippers has some words with referee Sean Wright #4 in the first quarter of Game Six of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Moda Center on April 29, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. 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 Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
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Pop quiz: Which team complains the most to the referees in the NBA?

You probably answered “the Clippers.” Most fans do. So do most NBA referees — And everyone else. Which is why after a recent loss to Golden State, veteran Marreese Speight (a Warrior last season) pointed to the Clippers complaining about the officiating as part of the problem.

He went on to say that the scouting report is you can get in the Clippers’ heads by knocking them around a little. Which seems pretty obvious when you watch teams play them. Shockingly, Clippers coach Doc Rivers disagrees with that. Via NBCLosAngeles.com.

“The officiating thing, I don’t think, is our issue. I will say that,” said Rivers about the technical fouls. “If that were the problem, then, Golden State would be struggling. They’ve been No. 2 the last two years in techs, too. I think we need to point fingers in another direction than that.”

Doc may not like it, but Speights is right.

The Warriors do complain too much, but they also have a ring so more is forgiven. The problem for the Clippers is that reputation for complaining starts with Rivers — he complains as much or more than any coach in the league. Then it filters down through Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.

Is it fair that more is forgiven with winning? Moot question. Welcome to America. The Clippers complain a lot and have yet to get past the second round with this core. And at times there standing there complaining to the referees does get in the way of them getting back into defense, and they seem to go in a funk.

Want to prove all that wrong? Win. In the playoffs.

Alivin Gentry, you worried about being fired: “I really don’t give a s— about my job status”

NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 26:  Head coach Alvin Gentry of the New Orleans Pelicans looks on as his team plays the Denver Nuggets at the Smoothie King Center on October 26, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Denver won the game 107-102. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
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The Pelicans are disappointing this season — it is Anthony Davis vs. the world down there. Which is the main reason they are 7-16 this season. While things have gotten better since Jrue Holiday‘s return, Davis is averaging a league-best 31.4 points per game, it then drops off to Holiday at 15.4, and then E'Twaun Moore at 11.1.

When a team struggles, usually that is a bad sign for the coach. Not because it’s always their fault, but because GMs choose not to fire themselves for poor roster construction. Which leads to the question: Alvin Gentry, are you concerned about your job? (Warning, NSFW)

Gentry with classic coach-speak: Control what you can control.

New Orleans’ struggles are not on Gentry, certainly not completely. He’d like a roster that can play uptempo, that has depth. What he got instead was a good point guard, an elite 4/5, a rookie in Buddy Hield that maybe pans out down the line, and then… nada. And the roster Gentry has often is banged up.

If anyone is in trouble, it is GM Dell Demps. Remember, Danny Ferry was hired last summer for the vague role of “special advisor.” Gentry is in his second year, and the issue is the roster he was given. But the Pelicans are a patient organization that values continuity, so… who knows. But the clock is ticking on Davis;, it’s years away, but the Pelicans need to build a team around him and are far from that right now.

Cavaliers’ James Jones says he’ll retire after next season

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 25:  James Jones #1 of the Cleveland Cavaliers receives his championship ring from owner Dan Gilbert before the game against the New York Knicks at Quicken Loans Arena on October 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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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James Jones has made a business of playing with LeBron James, and business is good.

Jones has ridden LeBron’s coattails to three contracts with the Cavaliers and appearances in five straight NBA Finals – the second-longest streak (behind LeBron’s six) outside the 1950s/60s Celtics:

But the 36-year-old Jones is preparing to retire.

Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal:

Jones told the Beacon Journal he will retire after next season, which will be his 15th in the NBA. His ultimate dream is to ride off after three consecutive championships in Cleveland

“I know playing 15 years is a number where I can look back and I can be like, ‘I accomplished something,’ ” Jones said. “Fourteen vs. 15 may not be much, but to be able to say I played 15 years, that’s enough for me to hang ’em up.”

Jones’ contract expires after the season, so the Cavs will have a say in whether he returns. Safe to say if LeBron wants him back, Jones will be back.

But the Heat got into trouble relying on washed-up veterans around LeBron, wasting valuable roster spots on players who could no longer contribute.

Is that Jones? Not yet. Though he’s out of the rotation, he has still made 11-of-12 open 3-pointers this season. There’s a role for him as spot-up shooter when Cleveland needs one.

Still, the Cavaliers ought to be mindful of Jones’ likely decline over the next year and a half. Plus, it’s not a certainty he holds to his timeline. Cavs veterans have a history of changing their mind on retirement.