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.

Expectations sky-high as Jazz look to break playoff drought

PHOENIX, AZ - OCTOBER 05:  Gordon Hayward #20 (second from right) of the Utah Jazz stands with teammates in a huddle during the first half of the preseason NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on October 5, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Leave a comment

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Joe Johnson had options of where to chase a ring in the twilight of his career and the seven-time All-Star chose to sign a two-year deal with a Utah Jazz team that hasn’t reached the playoffs since 2012.

Johnson, 35, bought into the widespread belief that the Jazz will improve from young up-and-comers to a competitive playoff team.

“It was the talent level and knowing from talking to (coach) Quin (Snyder), they wanted some veteran guys around these young guys and help lead the way,” Johnson said. “That was probably the biggest part.”

That’s the story on the Jazz entering the 2016-17 season: a team no longer on the cusp, but one with postseason expectations.

Snyder and general manager Dennis Lindsey have tried to temper those expectations, but the offseason moves to add veterans spoke volumes. The Jazz traded for George Hill and Boris Diaw and signed Johnson – ending the slow rebuild. The league, however, won’t see what this roster looks like at full strength for some time.

Gordon Hayward is out for an unknown amount of time with a broken finger on his non-shooting hand. Derrick Favors played just one preseason game due to a knee issue. Key reserve Alec Burks still hasn’t returned from arthroscopic surgery to his knee and ankle in June.

So the Jazz didn’t get to fully integrate the new veterans with the established players during the preseason.

“I feel like we’ve got a lot done in spite of (injuries),” Snyder said. “(Diaw, Hill and Johnson) have probably played more preseason minutes than I intended. … It has given them a chance to get acclimated. Their roles, particularly Joe’s, will probably change and evolve when Gordon comes back. Outside of that, there’s challenges. You just don’t know. Certain players, certain lineups. … I don’t think we were able to build quite the connectivity that we’d like at this point. But I felt like this was a team that was going to take a while to develop, too. Hopefully it doesn’t set us back too much.”

The Jazz begin the season on the road against the Trail Blazers on Tuesday. Eight of their first 11 games are on the road.

Things to watch as the Jazz prepare to tip off the season:

STIFLING TOWER: The 7-foot-1 Rudy Gobert has already established himself as one of the best defensive centers in the game, averaging 2.27 blocks over the last two seasons, but he’s shown off a little more offense this preseason. He seemed to catch and finish better than in the past and averaged 14.8 points in six games. The most notable improvement has been Gobert’s free throw shooting. He shot 56.9 percent last year and 74.5 percent this preseason.

RETURN OF EXUM: Dante Exum is back for regular season games for the first time since tearing his ACL in the summer of 2015. The No. 5 overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft is fully healthy and still an upper echelon defender on the perimeter with his 6-foot-6 frame. He looks to become more active on the offensive end with a better floater in the lane and improved 3-point shooting. The point guard showed the ability to log minutes at shooting guard next to Hill during the preseason.

GROWTH AREAS: The Jazz hope the additions and another year of growth will affect three areas in particular. The Jazz were No. 28 in the league with a scoring average of 97.7 points per game. That must improve. Johnson, Hill and Diaw already improve the depth. The team also struggled in close games, finishing 14-28 in games that were within five points with five minutes or less left.

IMPRESSION TIME: Not making the playoffs could not only be disappointing, but a detriment to the future. Hayward has a player-option on his contract after this season and is expected to use it to become a free agent. There will be a large market for his services, so the Jazz need to prove they’re an organization that can compete for championships in the near future. Gobert will become a restricted free agent in July if he doesn’t sign an extension by Oct. 31. Favors is set to become an unrestricted free agent after the 2017-18 season.

Follow Kareem Copeland on Twitter:

Cavaliers move up ring ceremony 30 minutes so it doesn’t conflict with World Series

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers holds the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy after defeating the Golden State Warriors 93-89 in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Getty Images

It’s a good time to be a Cleveland sports fan. Finally.

Next Tuesday, Oct. 25, will be one of the great sports days in the history of the city — the Cavaliers will get their championship rings, and the Indians will open the World Series at home.

Only one little problem: the two events were going to overlap.

So in the spirit of city unity the Cavaliers have moved up the start time of their ring ceremony by 30 minutes, and the game by 30 minutes as well. The ring ceremony now begins at 7 p.m. Eastern, with tip-off against the Knicks at 7:30 (both will be broadcast on TNT, followed by the Spurs at the Warriors).

First pitch for the World Series is at 8 Eastern.

Fans attending the Cavaliers ring ceremony will be given a special silicone ring, which if viewed on their phone through the Cavs app will look like a virtual championship ring. Kind of cool idea.

Tuesday is going to be a great day to be a Cavaliers sports fan (just don’t bring up the Browns). A lucky few will be at these events.

Although personally, I’d rather watch them both on a television while eating the brisket and having a beer at the bar at Mabel’s BBQ.

Warriors first team favored over the field for championship entering season since Michael Jordan’s Bulls

7 Jun 1998:  Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls walks on the court during the NBA Finals Game 3 against the Utah Jazz at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois.  The Bulls defeated the Jazz 96-54. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Daniel  /Allsport
Credit: Jonathan Daniel /Allsport

When asked my prediction for the 2017 NBA champion, I say the Warriors have about a 50-50 chance. Some call that a copout answer – but it’s really not.

For a team to have even odds against 29 others combined entering the season is extraordinary.

Just how rare is it?

David Purdum of ESPN:

Jeff Sherman, head NBA oddsmaker at the Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas, remembers the 1997-98 Bulls team, which was coming off a 72-win season, being around a minus-125 title favorite entering that season.

But Sherman and other sports betting industry veterans struggled to recall another team — in basketball, baseball or football — that was an odds-on favorite to start the season.

Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen led Chicago to the championship in 1998 (which was actually two seasons removed from the 72-win year).

Will Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson also meet their oversized expectations and deliver a title this year?

Flip a coin.

Report: Minnesota still talking Tyus Jones trade, Sixers may have interest

TARRYTOWN, NY - AUGUST 08:  Tyus Jones #1 of the Minnesota Timberwolves poses for a portrait during the 2015 NBA rookie photo shoot on August 8, 2015 at the Madison Square Garden Training Facility in Tarrytown, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.   (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Tyus Jones has a lot to like — he’s a point guard who makes good decisions, his shot is developing (40 percent from three at Summer League), and he’s got skills. Minnesota won the Summer League championship because of Jones’ leadership — just drafted and highly touted Kris Dunn was out for the title game, that’s where Jones shined.

But Dunn is the future at the point in Minnesota, and Ricky Rubio is still there. So Minnesota is seeing what might be out there for Jones, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Minnesota has had talks with Philadelphia, New Orleans, and others about Jones for a while.

Jones is likely a steady backup point guard at the NBA level — he’s a smart passer, knows how to run a team, and as his shot develops he becomes more dangerous. His downside is defense, but as a reserve that’s less of an issue.

For a team like the Sixers — without Jerryd Bayless to start the season — or while New Orleans waits for Jrue Holiday‘s return, Jones makes some sense. The only question is the price going back to Minnesota.