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.

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)


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

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.