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


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.

NBA fines Rockets’ Gerald Green, Celtics’ Marcus Morris

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Rockets star Chris Paul preemptively volunteered to pay Gerald Green‘s fine for shoving Gorgui Dieng, who had just pushed over Paul.

Of course, the NBA gave Paul something to follow through on.

The league also fined Celtics forward Marcus Morris.

NBA releases:

Houston Rockets guard/forward Gerald Green has been fined $25,000 for shoving Minnesota Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng, it was announced today by Kiki VanDeWeghe, Executive Vice President, Basketball Operations.

The incident took place with 10:13 remaining in the Rockets’ 129-120 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on March 18

Boston Celtics forward Marcus Morris has been fined $15,000 for verbal abuse of a game official, it was announced today by Kiki VanDeWeghe, Executive Vice President, Basketball Operations.

The incident occurred at the conclusion of the Celtics’ 108-89 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday, March 18

I couldn’t spot Morris’ incident on video, but Green definitely earned his fine. Fortunately for him, he was just supporting a teammate who understand how to value role players.

Iggy Azalea details burning Nick Young’s clothes (video)

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Nick Young and rapper Iggy Azalea had a very public relationship then a very public breakup.

D'Angelo Russell, then Young’s Lakers teammate, recorded and published a video of Young discussing being with other women. Young also impregnated his ex-girlfriend and then got caught cheating by Azalea on home-security cameras.

Her response?

Azalea on Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen:

I burnt it all.

I burnt a lot, and I threw stuff in the pool, too. I started off with water, and it just seemed like that didn’t work.

Every designer you can think of, I burned.

I was like, I’m going to find something you care about, and I’m going to start destroying that, which was his clothes. And we had a fire pit outside, a nice fire pit that you can put on with the gas.

I text him a video and I was like, “Hey, I’m burning your s—. I’m starting with the cheap s—.”

“I’m burning your things. And so, I don’t know where you’re at, probably with some girl. So, I hope you get home quickly, because I’m moving on. We’re progressing on the spectrum of cheap to expensive.”

But I will say expensive doesn’t burn. Expensive things do not burn well. All the Forever 21, [sound of going up in flames].

Young, now with the Warriors, is still reaping what he sowed.

Jeff Hornacek says he wants to know future with Knicks, doesn’t

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer
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A couple months ago, Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek said he believed he had the backing of president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry.

Now, Hornacek isn’t being quite so presumptuous.

Hornacek, via Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News:

“At the end of the season I’m sure we’ll sit down with (president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry) and figure out what we’re doing,” said Hornacek, whose two-season coaching record with the Knicks fell to 55-96 following Thursday’s loss to the Sixers. “As a coach you’d like to know if you’re going to be here next year. But our job right now is take the guys that we have on this team and try to get them better.”

Hornacek then acknowledged that the conversation with the front office about his future has not yet happened.

The Suns fired two of Hornacek’s assistants in 2015 then fired Hornacek about a month later. He knows what the writing on the wall looks like.

And there’s plenty of writing on the wall in New York, even if the Knicks aren’t firing shots across Hornacek’s bow quite so aggressively.

The since-ousted Phil Jackson hired Hornacek. Most executives in Mills’ position want to hire their own coach.

Notice how hard Hornacek is trying to frame this Knicks season as about player development, not their record (which, incidentally, is the correct way to view it). But here’s betting Mills uses Hornacek’s dismal record as cover to fire him.

That isn’t exactly fair to Hornacek, but he’s also the one who started Jarrett Jack at point guard most of the season. Hornacek tried to win with a flawed roster and didn’t. Hornacek’s player-development credentials are hardly impeccable, either. Coaches in his position usually take the fall.

There’s still a chance the end-of-season conversation leads to the Knicks keeping Hornacek. But, at this point, that’d be surprising.

Likely lottery pick Trae Young leaving Oklahoma for NBA draft

AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

LeBron James said Trae Young better go pro.

The freshman Oklahoma point guard listened.

Young, as told to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

I’ve been preparing most of my life to join the NBA, and that time has come for me now: After an unforgettable year at the University of Oklahoma, I will enter the June NBA draft and fully immerse myself in the pursuit of a pro basketball career.

Young is one of the NBA draft’s most polarizing prospects. He should still go in the lottery, but where will likely depend on the order of teams.

His fans see him as the next Stephen Curry, and Young has certainly shown flashes. He handled a huge load of the Sooners’ offense, because he was comfortable pulling up for deep 3-pointers and passing out of the pick-and-roll.

But he can be too sloppy with the ball, and NBA defenses will take away some of the simpler passes he made with great consistency at Oklahoma.

There’s also concern about his diminutive 6-foot-2 frame, especially defensively. If Young isn’t a lights-out shooter, that deficiency becomes a much bigger concern.

Young made 41% of his 3-pointers through December then just 33% this calendar year. His overall percentage – 36% – is still strong, especially coupled with an 86% mark on free throws. But he’s not the sure thing from outside he appeared to be when perception took hold.

Young’s reputation is probably ahead of his ability. But that can be true right now, and the 19-year-old could still have an NBA career worthy of a very high pick.