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.

Report: Carmelo Anthony adds Cavaliers to list of teams where he will accept a trade

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Carmelo Anthony wants most of all to be traded to Houston (and he has leverage thanks to the no-trade clause Phil Jackson/James Dolan gave him). However, to make the deal work the Rockets needed to unload the three-year, $60 million contract of Ryan Anderson — which the Knicks do not want, and neither did any third team without a couple high first-round picks as a sweetener. Also, the Knicks wanted good assets back the Rockets didn’t have, so the deal was dead. Anthony tried to wait it out, but nothing happened, and at this point the Knicks expect ‘Melo in camp Monday.

In the face of that, Anthony has expanded his list of teams where he will waive his no-trade clause to include the Cleveland Cavaliers and another mystery team, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Carmelo Anthony, a 10-time NBA All-Star, has delivered the New York Knicks an expanded list of teams — including the Cleveland Cavaliers — with which he’d be willing to waive his no-trade clause, league sources told ESPN.

After the Knicks insisted that they were unable to make a deal with the Houston Rockets, his primary trade destination, Anthony and his representatives honored New York’s request and furnished at least two more teams within the past 10 days, league sources told ESPN.

Cleveland was on the initial list of teams Anthony gave the Knicks (teams he would waive his no-trade for) but the Knicks wanted Kevin Love and Cleveland shot that down (that was before the Kyrie Irving deal, now Cleveland is even less likely to make that trade). The Cavaliers don’t have a lot of young talent on their roster, and that’s what the Knicks will want back in a deal, picks and players who are on Kristaps Porzingis‘ career arc.

If Cleveland was willing to throw the 2018 Brooklyn Nets pick in the trade it would get done quickly, but I have been told (before this news) Cleveland would not part with that pick, they see it as “LeBron leaves” insurance.

You can bet LeBron James is pushing to get Anthony on the Cavs. Adding him and Dwyane Wade — when Wade is bought out by the Bulls (eventually) — would move the Cavaliers a little closer to the Warriors, although both Wade and ‘Melo are bad defensive matchups against Golden State.

It’s unknown who the other team or teams on ‘Melo’s list are. While there had been rumors Portland was still trying to get in — that’s a team with multiple ways to make that trade if they are willing to send Zach Collins and picks to New York — multiple reports out of New York say the Blazers are not one of the teams, something first reported by Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

Anthony may well get moved before the start of the season now, but not likely before training camp opens for the Knicks Monday. So that awkward set of questions still gets to take place.

 

We have a (very minor) trade: Troy Daniels to Suns for pick

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Memphis had more than the max 15 guaranteed contracts on the books, and the cost of unloading one of those turns out to be a second-round pick.

Troy Daniels, who is owed $6.7 million over the next two years, has been traded from the Memphis Grizzlies to the Phoenix Suns, a story broken by Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports and since confirmed by the teams themselves. As part of the deal, the teams swap 2018 second round picks (however the Phoenix pick going to Memphis is top 55 protected, meaning it doesn’t move unless the Suns are a top five team ext season). Basically, Memphis has three second-round picks in 2018 and Phoenix gets the middle one as the sweetener for taking on the contract.

This trade is really about Memphis clearing a roster spot and some salary space, and Phoenix being willing to take it on for a second round pick.

Interestingly, Daniels and Suns star Devin Booker got in a little war of words at the end of a game last season.

The Suns consulted with Booker about that before pulling the trigger on the deal.

Pat Riley raves about Dwyane Wade, but avoids all contract talk

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MIAMI (AP) — Dwyane Wade is under contract with the Chicago Bulls, meaning other NBA clubs cannot openly talk about possibly signing him until he is a free agent. As such, Miami Heat President Pat Riley was cautious Friday when asked about Wade’s future.

Wade spent his first 13 seasons in Miami before leaving in the summer of 2016 and going to the Bulls, his hometown team. But Chicago appears in full rebuilding mode after trading All-Star forward Jimmy Butler – someone Wade was close with – to Minnesota this offseason. And since Wade is in the last year of a deal that will pay him nearly $24 million this season, buyout speculation has been rampant for months.

If Wade gets a buyout, he’d be free to join any team.

“I feel great about our relationship that we had over the 13 years,” Riley said. “And anything that happens from a personnel standpoint down the road, or any opportunities that are there, we’re always going to approach that. But right now he’s under contract. He’s under contract with Chicago and I wish him the very best.”

Some Heat players, including longtime close friend Udonis Haslem, have made clear that if Wade becomes a free agent they would definitely want him to consider a return.

“He knows how I feel,” Haslem said this month.

Riley – and every other NBA executive – has to be much more guarded. But Riley made no secret of the affinity he still has for Wade, even raving about his wife, actress Gabrielle Union.

“She was stunning at the Emmys,” Riley said. “And to see him sitting in the seat next to her at the Emmys, I said `Man, we both have come a long way.”‘

The Bulls hold their media day Monday, with camp opening Tuesday. Wade spent at least part of this week in Miami, where he kept his home, and worked out at least once at the University of Miami .

Bulls President John Paxson told CSN Chicago on Thursday he and general manager Gar Forman sat down with Wade when the season ended, and plan to do so again when he returns to Chicago in the coming days.

“We were honest with him. We told him, that we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Paxson said. “At that time we were not shopping Jimmy. But we also said all along that if a deal would come along that would allow us to rebuild, we’d have to look at it. We’ve said that to everybody. So with that said, Dwyane’s under contract. He has been a professional through and through. We want to talk to him when he comes in town, and we will.”

Wade is Miami’s franchise leader in several categories, starred on all three of the Heat championship teams and has kept close ties with several people within the organization since his departure. He was the MVP of the 2006 NBA Finals.

“Probably one of the greatest series that any player has ever had in a Finals,” Riley said.

Report: Noah Vonleh likely to miss first couple weeks of Trail Blazers’ regular season

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The Trail Blazers basically have four starters penciled in: Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Maurice Harkless and Jusuf Nurkic.

The fifth – likely a power forward, though potentially a small forward if Harkless shifts down – won’t be Noah Vonleh.

Jason Quick of CSN Northwest:

Trail Blazers’ forward Noah Vonleh has suffered a right shoulder strain that will keep him out of training camp and likely the first two weeks of the regular season, CSN has learned.

Vonleh started half Portland’s games, both regular season and playoffs last season, though the low-minute role was somewhat ceremonial. The Trail Blazers really seem to want to get the 22-year-old Vonleh going.

He’s up for a contract extension, and while that always seemed unlikely, this puts a major damper on that possibility. Portland will most likely evaluate him further before proceeding in restricted free agency next summer.

In the meantime, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, Meyers Leonard, Caleb Swanigan or Evan Turner could start. It all depends how the Trail Blazers want to balance their starting lineup and their rotation. At least they have plenty of options.