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.

Lakers hire Kardashian trainer Gunnar Peterson

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LOS ANGELES (AP) A celebrity trainer known for getting the Kardashian clan into shape is going to work for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Gunnar Peterson is the Lakers’ new director of strength and endurance training, the team announced Wednesday.

Peterson has been a favorite trainer among entertainers and athletes for many years while running a well-regarded private gym in Beverly Hills. His client list has included Sylvester Stallone, Halle Berry, Ben Affleck, Jennifer Lopez, Sofia Vergara and Pete Sampras, along with most of the Kardashian family.

Peterson will develop a strength and conditioning program for the Lakers, general manager Rob Pelinka says.

The 16-time NBA champion franchise has replaced several key members of its internal staff since Magic Johnson and Pelinka assumed control of basketball operations earlier this year.

Report: Bucks interested in Cavaliers GM David Griffin

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The Magic hired Jeff Weltman, and the Hawks are reportedly close to hiring Travis Schlenk.

In other words, Cavaliers general manager David Griffin – who’s still without a contract for next season – lost his leverage with other teams.

But to the rescue are the Bucks, who will not necessarily promote assistant general manager Justin Zanik to replace Orland-bound general manager John Hammond.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

Multiple sources told cleveland.com that the Bucks, who lost general manager John Hammond to the Orlando Magic this week, have interest in Griffin, 47.

Griffin and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert have spoken about continuing their partnership in recent days, sources said, though no agreement was reached.

I still think Griffin stays in Cleveland. He helped assemble a championship contender, and he has LeBron Jamesendorsement. Plus, the Cavaliers can afford him.

But whomever gets the Milwaukee job will inherit a roster stocked with promising young talent like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jabari Parker, Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker. The Bucks wouldn’t be a bad fallback option for Griffin – if he can’t use them to get a deal with the Cavs.

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue: Celtics’ sets harder to defend than Warriors’

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With the Cavaliers up 3-1 on the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, most basketball observers are focused on Cavs-Warriors III in the NBA Finals.

But Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue is more concerned with Boston, which scored surprisingly well in Games 3 and 4 after losing Isaiah Thomas to injury.

Lue, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

“I don’t even think about them,” Lue said of the Warriors to a small group of traveling Cleveland beat writers following the Cavs’ Game 4 win on Tuesday. “We’re just focused on Boston. The stuff they’re running, it’s harder to defend than Golden State’s [offense] for me, as far as the actions and all the running around and all the guys who are making all the plays, so it’s a totally different thing.”

Wait, the Isaiah Thomas-less 53-win Celtics are harder to defend than the Kevin Durant-supercharged 67-win Warriors? Come again, Coach?

“Like, they hit the post, Golden State runs splits and all that stuff, but these guys are running all kinds of s—,” Lue said of Boston coach Brad Stevens’ schemes. “I’ll be like, ‘F—.’ They’re running all kinds of s—, man. And Brad’s got them moving and cutting and playing with pace, and everybody is a threat. It’s tough, you know, it’s tough.”

I think Lue means in a very specific way – getting his players into proper position. And in that regard he might be right.

I also think the Warriors will take this in the broadest, most offensive way possible. That’s just the nature of this rivalry.

Without Thomas, Stevens has been forced to diversify Boston’s offense. The Cavaliers, who prepared for a very different scheme, were caught off guard and are adjusting on the fly.

That’s a real challenge. But framing it as the central issue sells Golden State short.

Even if it’s harder for Lue to get his players into proper position against the Celtics, the Warriors’ surplus talent – including Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green – more than makes up for it. And it’s not as if Golden State runs a basic scheme.

So why did Lue say this?

He didn’t think the travelling Cleveland beat writers would publish his candid remarks? He didn’t convey his thoughts clearly? He naively didn’t consider how this would motivate the Warriors? All are plausible.

Another theory: Lue is trying to plant a seed that acting Golden State coach Mike Brown, whose known (fairly or not) for his simplistic offensive schemes, is holding back the Warriors. If Steve Kerr doesn’t return, resentment of Brown is one of the few things that could tear apart a dominant Golden State team.

Richard Jefferson: LeBron James was sick during Cavaliers-Celtics Game 3

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LeBron James was inexplicably bad in the Cavaliers’ Game 3 loss to the Celtics on Sunday.

Except maybe it was explicable.

Cleveland forward Richard Jefferson, via Fox Sports Ohio

I know he won’t talk about it, so I’ll give my big guy a shout. Deron Williams missed shootaround this morning, because he had like a little bug, just really lethargic, had no energy. And I think that’s what Bron had. And sometimes these little bugs can go around.

When Deron didn’t show up to shootaround, it kind of started clicking in his head. Because for him it was more of like, “I don’t know why I was so lethargic, why I had no energy, I had nothing.” And so, these little things happen. There was no panic.

Look, he was lethargic. They hit a bunch of tough shots. If Marcus Smart doesn’t go 7-for-10 from 3, then we’re not even talking about it.

I don’t know whether LeBron was truly sick or Jefferson is just trying to help a teammate’s reputation. It can be both.

LeBron was better in Game 4, but not quite right.

If he’s dealing with a minor illness, that could clear up by Game 5 tomorrow. It should especially clear up by the Finals, which begin June 1. That’d be great news for the Cavs, who have no chance against the Warriors if LeBron isn’t at full strength.

The uncertainty of why LeBron hit a slump now of all times loomed over Cleveland’s playoff future. But Jefferson provided reason for the Cavaliers to breathe easy.