Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Kenyon Martin, Blake Griffin

The Inbounds: How the West will almost-but-not-actually be won


Parity has become something of a naughty word around intelligent conversation about the NBA. Because parity is another word for “competitive balance” and that was the word the owners and league used to justify killing off 20 percent of the season last year. (When in truth the hard cap wouldn’t help a damn bit with that.) And when you start attacking something like that, you can attack all angles of it. One way that’s particularly en vogue is the idea that people don’t actually want parity. They want dominant teams. And that’s certainly correct for the casual viewer. But the real ideal, I think everyone can agree, is two dominant teams in both conferences, and competitive teams filling out the rest of the playoff spots, with two-to-three teams right there for the eighth spot who aren’t total and complete jokes. It’s impossible, because how are the dominant teams going to be dominant if they can’t completely dismantle the eighth seed? But we were pretty close last season, with the Jazz a pretty good team that just had no shot at taking out San Antonio.

Parity is fun. Because that first weekend of the playoffs, with dual quadruple-headers, you get eight competitive games. You want every series going seven, with every game tooth and nail. That’s just good sport.

And we’re pretty likely to have it this year. If we assume Miami, Indiana, Boston, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, New York in some order, you’ve still got Milwaukee (who’s going to be deceptively cohesive), Toronto, Atlanta (and we have no idea what Atlanta-minus-Joe is going to look like), and Detroit (no, I’m not kidding). (I have no idea about Chicago. They could be a top three-seed they could miss the playoffs. I have no idea. Check back with me in January.)

But the West is where it breaks into wide open spaces like a Southwestern desert or a mountain range.

The Lakers, Thunder, and Spurs will be in the top three spots barring injury, it’s pretty safe to assume that. San Antonio is one where you’re tempted to throw them back into the pack of wolves to fight for their lives, but we always doubt San Antonio, and they always exceed regular season expectations (as opposed to the mid-2000’s when they would meet disappoint in the regular season and then exceed postseason expectations). As good as Los Angeles and the Thunder are, it shouldn’t shock anyone to see the Spurs nab the top seed in the playoffs again, just as it shouldn’t shock anyone to see them bounced in any round, first through Finals.

But after that?

Memphis, Denver, the Clippers, Dallas, Minnesota, Utah, Phoenix, Houston, Golden State are all in the mix for spots No.4 through No.8. That’s assuming the Kings can’t put things together (the talent is there, the experience and cohesion is not), that Anthony Davis isn’t that good, and Portland’s still recovering from whatever happened last year. Think about that. I have to put up pretty strict “this possible-but-unlikely event cannot happen” rules jut to keep the entire Western Conference out of the playoff picture.

There’s two divisions of those remaining teams. The “Only If The Reactor’s Core Explodes Are They Missing The Playoffs” and “Some Things Will Have To Go Right.” Let’s explore, and start by determining if they’re better than they were last year.

“Only If The Reactor’s Core Explodes Are They Missing The Playoffs”

Denver: Did they get better: Absolutely. People will talk about the offensive step back with Iguodala in and Afflalo out, which completely ignores the fact that George Karl has assembled a top five offense nearly every year and that Iguodala is anything but an offensive zero, and that it’s not only possible but likely that Gallinari, Hamilton, Chandler, Fournier, Brewer, or Miller will take a step forward in shooting. Meanwhile, they’ve got JaVale McGee entering the second year in a system where he’s asked to do less defensively but more of what he excels at, and better perimeter containment with Andre Iguodala. They have depth, they have a strong team concept, and had a high number of things go wrong last season, yet still made the playoff as the sixth seed. There are those slotting the Nuggets in as high as the third seed, which I would lean towards, were it not for the Spurs postulate stated above.

Memphis: For years, the Grizzlies’ biggest weakness has been the bench. The starters go out, and disaster erupts. Leads would vanish, deficits would stretch, the offense would stagger drunkenly off a cliff. Last year, they improved in that area with Marreese Speights filling in for Arthur, and Dante Cunningham adding length and versatility, while O.J. Mayo was the spark. Mayo and Cunningham are gone, but Speights is back, with a healthy Darrell Arthur (or as close to healthy as you can get), and they’ve added Jerryd Bayless as the firebug combo-guard. Josh Selby showed wonders during Summer League. It’s Summer League. But if Selby can just be decent, the Grizzlies have a strong second unit, which means a team that fought through a lot of injury issues and still landed the fourth seed could be even better.

Los Angeles Clippers: Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are both coming off offseason surgery. But the Clippers get back Chauncey Billups and add Jamal Crawford to replace Nick Young. Eric Bledsoe will be healthy, and another year better. DeAndre Jordan is the biggest “must get better” player on the team. The Clippers may be more likely to backwards, but they’ve still got Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.

“Some Things Will Have To Go Right”

Dallas: If you want to use that term “on paper” there’s not a better one than the Mavericks. They have playoff-starter caliber guys at every position. They’ve got experience, they’ve got youth and energy, they’ve got a Hall of Famer, they’ve got depth and a terrific coach. So what could trip them up? In short, there’s just a lot we don’t know know about them. How is Collison going to mesh? Can Mayo take a step forward? Can Shawn Marion and Vince Carter hold it together another year? How’s Elton Brand’s health? Which Chris Kaman are we getting? You can ask these type questions about any team in the league. You just can’t ask them as loudly or as forcefully in most cases. Dallas could prove to be horrible “Island of Dr. Moreau” type disaster experiment, or yet another “Huh. Whaddya know, Donnie pulled it off again.” We just don’t know.

Timberwolves: I would have to think the Wolves have to be equal odds to Dallas for making the postseason. Kevin Love’s the best power forward in the league, Ricky Rubio, if he can bounce back to at least 75% is in the top-half of point guards in the league. They have a lot of risks, like Brandon Roy. But they’ve also got depth, a great coach, and were right there before Rubio’s injury last season. AK47 doesn’t hurt and the rest of the bench has improved.

Utah: Made it last year. Didn’t get demonstratively worse or better. If anything, the depth is slightly improved. What worked last year should work this year. One or two outlier years from guys and they’re right there.

Phoenix: I have the most questions about the Suns, since if you look for “who’s going to take a lot of shots on that team?” and the answer is “Michael Beasley” you’re usually in trouble. But Goran Dragic can be an absolute killer, Luis Scola had a step back year but is still crafty as get out and Marcin Gortat is whatever you consider Marcin Gortat to be. The Suns are this year’s “Two-Face” because they could be absolutely terrific and admirable and awful in the same game.

Houston: There’s a lot of talk that Houston could be the worst team in the West next year. Even with the inexperience of the rookies, your core is Jeremy Lin-Kevin Martin-Chandler Persons- Patrick Patterson- Omer Asik. I’m not here to sell you on that team as a contender. I’m here to say there’s every reason to believe that if even one of the rookies is “pretty good” that that’s going to be a team within reach of the playoffs. Lin can be a disaster and they still survive. Asik can be awful and they still survive. They need some things to go their way, but they also need a lot to go wrong for them not to be in contention for a seed.

Golden State: Let me put it this way. If we factor injury concerns, the Warriors could miss the playoffs and even be a bottom-three team in the West. If the Basketball Gods get off their players’ cases and let them have their careers? There’s no reason the Warriors can’t get the fourth seed. With Dallas we have no way to know how they’re going to fit together. With Golden State, we don’t know if they’ll be allowed to. The players fit together when healthy. The coaching is a concern for putting the pieces together in the right order. But just as you can’t count on these players because of injury, you can’t count out this team because you want to predict how the body will react.

We’re looking at a West that could see absolute mayhem. Last year it took till the last three days of the season to decide the playoff order. We could have just as intense a race this year. And if you can’t get excited about that, despite the gap between these teams and the top, then you’re watching sports wrong.

Jimmer Fredette scores 37 in D-League debut while Floyd Mayweather watches

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You can’t make this stuff up.

After being cut by the Spurs during training camp, Jimmer Fredette decided to stay stateside and play in the D-League, looking for a way back into and another chance in the NBA (the banged up Pelicans picked him up for four games but released him again). Fredette put up impressive numbers in his debut with the Westchester Knicks (the New York Knicks affiliate), scoring 37 points on 12-of-17 shooting, hitting a couple of threes and getting to the line a dozen times.

All while boxer Floyd Mayweather looked on from courtside (Mayweather was there to see buddy Jordan Crawford).

If Fredette keeps putting up numbers, maybe he gets a call up. But nothing is seriously going to change for Fredette unless his defense improves markedly — that has always been the big problem, and not always one exploited the same way in the D-League. He is on the low end of the athleticism scale for the NBA (not college) and that has led teams to just target him when he comes in games. There is no mercy in the NBA, and Fredette has been the gazelle outside the herd that becomes the clear target.

But he’s had a good D-League game, it’s a start on a road back.

Pelicans’ Tyreke Evans says he returns to lineup Tuesday

Tyreke Evans
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The Pelicans have needed this.

There is not one simple reason the Pelicans stumbled out of the gate this season and might as well be booking late April tee times now (they will not recover and make the playoffs). It’s a combination of issues. But at the top of any list needs to be injuries, and specifically the injury to Tyreke Evans, who had his knee scoped back in training camp.

Evans will suit up for the Pelicans Tuesday. This had been rumored for a while, but Evans himself confirmed it on Instagram.

Gm lets get it I'm not a hundred percent but happy to play today first game back #beastmode #takeflightshow

A photo posted by Tyreke Evans (@tyrekeevans) on

The Pelicans desperately need his shot creation. Anthony Davis is an unquestionable beast, but he’s not a guy you can just throw the rock to and watch him create for himself and others out on the wing. Jrue Holiday can’t really do that either. The Pelicans have looked better with Ish Smith at the point of late because he can create a little thanks to his quickness.

Evans is better at this than anyone else they have. Getting him back in the mix helps.

Norris Cole, who played fantastically for the Pelicans last season, also is expected to return to the rotation tonight.

With those two back and the team starting to find a groove, they can become respectable to dangerous. But I just can’t see them climbing out of the hole they are in and find a way into the playoffs.


Luke Walton is NBA Coach of the Month despite zero official wins

Luke Walton
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If you were going to name the Western Conference Coach of the Month for November, there was only one choice to make — the coach of the undefeated Golden State Warriors.

So congratulations Steve Kerr, since he gets the credit for those 19 and counting wins… er, wait.

The NBA announced it has given November Coach of the Month award to Luke Walton, the interim Warriors’ coach who has guided the team while Kerr is recovering from back surgery. The league also announced Cavaliers’ coach David Blatt as the Eastern Conference Coach of the Month.

As the NBA explained earlier in the day, they see the Warriors as still Kerr’s team — he was the architect who put in the systems and built the foundation, while Walton is just living in the house for a while. Walton is a housesitter. So the fact the team was undefeated under Walton is moot, he gets no credit for the wins, they all go on Kerr’s resume. But Walton can win the Coach of the Month award for guiding the Warriors with their league-best point differential of 15.4 points per game.

This was expected, but now it is official.

He could win it again for December, unless Steve Kerr decides to come back

Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan tied NBA record with 22 missed free throws Monday

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DeAndre Jordan tied his personal best with 12 made free throws Monday night against the Trail Blazers.

But that’s not what anybody is talking about with Jordan’s trips to the free throw line Tuesday.

So you don’t have to do the math yourself, Jordan hit just 35.3 percent of his free throws. When the Clippers pulled away with a mini-run in the fourth quarter, Blazers coach Terry Stotts responded with hack-a-Jordan, and Doc Rivers refused to take him out. The result was nine intentional fouls and trips to the free throw line in less than two minutes.

It was ugly to watch.

The purist’s answer here is “if he hits his free throws this never happens, so learn to shoot them.” That’s the camp Adam Silver is in, and it’s his voice (and that of the other owners) that matters. There is no appetite around the league to change the rule, even though more and more players are being subjected to it.

I would argue that fouling intentionally off the ball in the first place is outside the spirit of the game — it’s not playing basketball — and unsportsmanlike. I think it’s bad for the sport, much worse than missed free throws and a dragged out game. I would like to see any time there is an off-the-ball foul the aggrieved team having a choice of free throws or the ball out-of-bounds.

But I’m in the minority. The rule isn’t changing soon. Which means Jordan — or Dwight Howard or Rajon Rondo or someone — is going to get the chance to set a new free throw futility mark soon. That will be fun to watch.