The Inbounds: Nash, Howard, and an impossible sword

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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.

Last year, on a team where Marcin Gortat was the second-best player on the team and the rest of the roster was at best inconsistent and at worst a hot mess, Steve Nash’s passes out of the pick and roll lead to scoring 59.5% of the time, which was best among players with 100 possessions, according to Synergy Sports. So he was literally the best pick and roll passer in the leauge.

Last year, on a team where Jameer Nelson had injury issues, the entire team has chemistry problems related to the ongoing drama, and the offense was primarily geared around perimeter shooters (oh, and he was injured), Dwight Howard scored as the pick and roll man 73.7% of the time, which was best in the league.

So they have literally paired the best pick and roll passing guard with the best pick and roll finisher in the league.

Ready for some more crack analysis?

As a result, the Lakers are going to be pretty good.

The Nash-Howard dynamic on the floor is the most dangerous element the Lakers will have in play. Kobe Bryant is still an elite scorer. Pau Gasol and Steve Nash will have a fantastic mastery of the pick and pop set. But Nash-Howard, long before the Lakers entered the picture, was the perfect combination. A point guard who can deliver the ball to any point on the floor combined with the most athletic big man with excellent feel for the pick and roll spacing. If you cover the roll, Nash shoots, and he shoots 55 percent from that situation. Bring help and either Gasol has a mid-range jumper or Bryant is open on the cut or catch. It’s the BFG of offense.

And it’s indicative of the real reason this team will be so dangerous. It fits together better than any superteam in recent memory.

The stellar combinations of talent that have accumulated over the past five seasons have all been dynamic, impressive combinations of ability. But the Celtics, with a high-usage self-creating small forward, a spot-up shooter wing, and a hyper-versatile combo forward? The Celtics’ were dominant precisely because they were willing to commit themselves to something greater than their original talents. They sacrificed for a greater concept. It was a good offense, but not an elite one. The Heat? They’ve learned to play together, but the reason they’ve struggled over the past two years is because versatile combo-point-forward mixed with ISO slashing shooting guard, and traditional stretch four? It’s not a perfect mix. The Knicks…. yeah, the Knicks. The Lakers bring something entirely different.

Nash fits well with Gasol’s ability to spread the floor, and can create open looks for Bryant, something that he doesn’t do on his own. But Nash with Howard maximizes both of their abilities. They only way to properly defend it is to bring help defenders, and at that point you’ve got Kobe Bryant or Pau Gasol (or Metta World Peace or Jodie Meeks or Steve Blake) with enough space to allow them to make a sandwich before they shoot.

But all that’s on paper.

There’s a million ways the Lakers can fall apart. Chemistry, injuries (Howard’s back, in particular), good ol’ fashioned age, the simple fact that despite all the evidence to the contrary, things on paper don’t just go together. Mike Brown’s coaching is widely held as suspect, and Bryant’s willingness to let go of the reins is not exactly something you can count on. The lesson from the Heat should be that it isn’t that simple. That it does take time to click, and that talent isn’t everything.

But the formula the Lakers have put together isn’t one built on just raw talent. It’s a special combination of skills. Bringing in a player that can pass like Nash is one thing, but pick and roll is his bread and butter. And Dwight Howard’s one big piece of toast.

The trick here is to not overestimate what the Laker are capable of, to not overstate their ceiling by talking about nonsense like 72 wins or a title right off the bat, but to also recognize and respect the brilliance of what the Lakers have put together. They could have gotten sub-stars at redundant positions, or shuffled the same pieces. Acquiring just Nash and you have a dominant team that still is trying to find the right ways to go together. Just get Howard, and you have size but nothing to figure out how the pieces fit together.

But instead, this combination is going to bring something more dangerous than anything else the Lakers have. Let’s be clear. If Kobe Byant were to vanish from existence tomorrow like in “Back to the Future,” just vanish into nothing, the Lakers would still be dominant because of the strength of how much better Nash makes every player around him and how strong Howard is as a finisher and defensively.

There’s room to admit that the Lakers have a lot of challenges and risks, including Howard’s back, their age, and to acknowledge just how good this team will be, and why.

If the Lakers are healthy, and there’s no personality conflict, the league is in trouble. Because if they’re not unguardable, they’ll be as close as it gets.

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.

Michigan’s D.J. Wilson staying in NBA draft

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Michigan bigs D.J. Wilson and Moe Wagner declared for the NBA draft in similar situations – coming off breakout seasons, particularly excelling down the stretch, and sitting on the first-round bubble for the NBA draft. Neither hired an agent, leaving their options open.

But this is where their paths diverge.

Michigan releases:

University of Michigan junior forward D.J. Wilson announced today (Wednesday, May 24) he will forgo his final two seasons of eligibility and submit the necessary paperwork to remain as an early entrant into the 2017 NBA Draft.

University of Michigan sophomore forward Moritz Wagner announced today (Wednesday, May 24) he will return to the Wolverine basketball program after removing his name from consideration for the 2017 NBA Draft.

Wilson and Wagner both said they’d stay in the draft only if they’d be first-round picks. I wonder whether Wilson got a first-round promise or is just confident enough he’ll get picked there. The latter wouldn’t be a bad bet. Even if the 22-year-old Wilson slips into the second round, this might be the peak of his draft value.

At times, it’s easy to forget Wilson is a 6-foot-11 big man. He shoots 3-pointers, dribbles and moves like a wing. He also too often shies from contact, which particularly hurts his rebounding.

But he’s a big. Those perimeter skills wouldn’t shine quite as brightly if he were matched up with opposing wings. Wilson has a 7-foot-3 wingspan, and he also protect the rim. However, his shot-blocking relies on a bounciness that’s not as effective when pressed into more physical matchups. He needs some space to launch – but when he has it, it also pays off in quality finishing at the rim.

Wilson has the tools to be a good NBA power forward, but he’s still a work in progress. In other words, he still looks like a borderline first-round pick.