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.

Warriors’ rookie Jordan Bell goes off the backboard to himself for dunk

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The best part of this is the stunned reaction of the Warriors bench.

The Warriors had taken total control of the game against Dallas in the second half, and with a few minutes left Steve Kerr emptied his bench in garbage time. That’s when rookie Jordan Bell made the play of the night: He blocked Dwight Powell‘s shot then leaked out, JaVale McGee batted the ball ahead to him, and Bell threw the ball off the backboard for a self alley-oop. He got an and-one on the play.

The move didn’t sit well with everyone, there is an unwritten rule about showboating in a blowout game. Draymond Green had thoughts on that — he has thoughts on everything and isn’t afraid to share them — and he came to Bell’s defense speaking to NBC Sports Bay Area.

“Listen man, when you get on the basketball floor, I don’t care if you get out there with two minutes to go up 25 or with two minutes to go down 25, somebody is evaluating you. So you gotta play the game just like it’s tied up or if you’re up four or if you’re down four. You gotta play the game the same way. Somebody is evaluating you. So if you want to throw it off the backboard, feel free and dunk the ball. He got an And One. It was a great play. So, I got no message for him. Do what you do. Play basketball. That’s what he did. I don’t get all up into the whole ‘Ah man, they’re winning by this much, that’s bad.’ Says who? Dunk the ball. What’s the difference between if he threw it off the backboard and dunked it as opposed to grabbing it and dunking it?”

Or, put another way, if you don’t want a player to throw down the massive alley-oop dunk on you, play better defense in the first place.

Mario Chalmers trips James Harden, Harden shoves him back (VIDEO)

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Memphis came back on an 18-2 run late to in the fourth quarter to knock off the Houston Rockets, a very impressive road win that reminds us Memphis is not a team to be written off.

This is the play everyone will be talking about — James Harden squared up looking for a fight.

Mario Chalmers got knocked down by a Harden screen, and while on the ground tries to trip up Harden, and Harden turns around and shoves him. Harden squared up, but as happens in the NBA everyone stepped in, and nothing actually happened.

Neither man was ejected. The referees called it an offensive foul on Harden for the pick, then there were double technicals. Fines may follow from the league.

Metta World Peace joins Lakers’ G League team as ass’t coach

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) — Metta World Peace has joined the Los Angeles Lakers’ NBA G League affiliate as a player development coach.

The veteran NBA forward was added to the South Bay Lakers’ staff Monday.

World Peace played 16 NBA seasons for six franchises, including six years with the Lakers from 2009-10 and 2015-17. He was a standout defensive player who won a championship alongside Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol in 2010.

While he hasn’t publicly retired, the forward formerly known as Ron Artest will assist South Bay Lakers head coach Coby Karl and his staff.

World Peace earned the longest suspension in NBA history for his role in the Indiana Pacers’ infamous brawl in the stands at Detroit in November 2004, but he matured into a valued veteran leader for the Lakers.

LaVar Ball calls out Wizards, Marcin Gortat doesn’t think that was smart

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“I told him after the game, due to all the riffraff his dad brings he’s going to get a lot of people coming at him. He’s got to be ready for that, and I let him know after the game… (I had to) welcome his little young a** to the NBA.”

That was the Clippers’ Patrick Beverley after he tormented Lonzo Ball on opening night, and he speaks for a number of other players I have heard from who said father LaVar wrote checks that Lonzo is going to have to cash, and guys were going to go at him. Not every night, but enough.

Since that rough opener the rookie has had a decent couple of games — averaging 18.5 points, 11 assists, and eight rebounds a night, not efficient but playing better — going against Eric Bledsoe (a capable defender who had checked out mentally in Phoenix) and Jrue Holiday and the Pelicans. Wednesday night John Wall and the Wizards come to town, and that’s another level of competition.

My least favorite thing about this Lakers season is the way the L.A. media sticks a microphone in front of LaVar Ball after every game. I don’t care about LaVar, in the same way I don’t care about the Kardashians.

But what he said has become a thing. After the Lakers loss to the Pelicans LaVar said, “[The Wizards] better beware cause Lonzo ain’t losing again. Not in the same week!”

Wizards’ center Marcin Gortat thought that was funny.

First off, Lonzo is going to lose twice in a week a lot this season — the Lakers are not a good team.

Second, Wall is a top-five NBA point guard by any standard, an All-NBA player who is far more than just quick (although he is that, too). He can shoot, he’s an aggressive defender, and he knows how to set up teammates. He’s going to be more than a handful for Ball. To put it kindly.

Whatever happens Wednesday night (most likely Wall smokes Lonzo) we know one thing for sure: LaVar will say something outlandish. And it will become a thing. The game is secondary for that marketing effort.