Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Kenyon Martin, Blake Griffin

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

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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.

Mike D’Antoni declares James Harden the Rockets’ point guard (‘points guard’)

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James Harden is no longer the NBA’s best shooting guard.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said Harden – who averaged 29.0 points and 7.5 assists per game last season – is now Houston’s point guard, though D’Antoni added it wouldn’t be a big adjustment.

D’Antoni, via ClutchFans:

With James, we’ll make a cheap joke. He’ll be a points guard.

We just renamed it. You guys got something to write about.

Harden already controlled the ball a ton, taking primary playmaking and distributing responsibilities last season. This just gets the ball into his hands quicker and should allow the Rockets to play faster, a key component of D’Antoni’s offense.

Of course, D’Antoni’s offense functioned best when Steve Nash – more of a pure passer – ran it with the Suns. Harden won’t duplicate that. His passing ability is more predicated on taking advantage of his scoring threat. But Harden – who, like Nash, is an excellent ball-handler – could make the offense hum in his own way.

Even though D’Antoni is trying to downplay the position switch, it’s a notable shift. Harden fully commanding the offense is a grand experiment with major upside (and potential for a rocky downside).

This will also allow Houston to use Patrick Beverley (historically a point guard) or Eric Gordon (historically a shooting guard) in the backcourt with Harden, allowing a more flexible rotation.

LeBron James says he’ll stand for national anthem

Minnesota Timberwolves v Cleveland Cavaliers
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LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul made a statement denouncing the mistreatment of black and brown bodies and retaliatory violence.

Then, Colin Kaepernick took the civil discourse to another level by sitting and then kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police brutalizing black Americans.

Will LeBron – the most powerful player in the NBA – follow Kaepernick’s method of demonstration?

LeBron, via Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

“I think you guys know when I’m passionate about something I’ll speak up on it, so me standing for the national anthem is something I will do, that’s who I am, that’s what I believe in,” James said. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t respect and don’t agree with what Colin Kaepernick is doing. You have the right to voice your opinion, stand for your opinion and he’s doing it in the most peaceful way I’ve ever seen someone do something.”

“You see these videos that continue to come out, it’s a scary-ass situation that if my son calls me and said if he got pulled over, that I’m not that confident that things are gonna go well and my son is going to return home,” James said. “My son just started the sixth grade.”

“I don’t have the answer,” said James, who has a track record for speaking out when notable cases of police violence toward blacks occurs. “None of us have the answer, but the more times we can talk about it, the more times we can conversate about it. Because I’m not up here saying all police are bad because they’re not. I’m not up here saying that all kids are great and all adults are great, because they’re not.

“But at the same time all lives do matter. It’s not black or white, it’s  not that. It’s everyone, so, it’s just tough being a parent right now when you have a pre-teen.”

To many – seemingly including LeBron – the national anthem (at least the verses we sing) represents what America aspires to be. Kaepernick and those who’ve followed his lead can’t overlook what America is.

Neither approach is wrong.

What’s important: We continue the conversation about police overreach and racism in America. The first step in fixing the problems are acknowledging that they exist.

Kaepernick has brought an incredible amount of attention to the issue. His protest is working.

LeBron will add to the cause in his own way, but Kaepernick kneeling opened the floodgates. Because of Kaepernick, LeBron was asked about this today, and his fears about his son interacting with police will be heard.

Derrick Rose: ‘I felt I didn’t do anything wrong’

FILE - In this June 24, 2016, file photo, New York Knicks' Derrick Rose speaks during a news conference at Madison Square Garden in New York. Phil Jackson made a risky move when he traded for the injury-prone Rose in June, and now the Knicks face the possibility of their point guard's involvement in a rape trial in California during his first preseason with the team.  (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)
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The Knicks say they’re not concerned about Derrick Rose, who’s facing a civil lawsuit and criminal investigation for an alleged rape.

Rose doesn’t sound concerned, either.

Chris Herring of The Wall Street Journal:

Maybe Rose said he believes he did nothing wrong because he did nothing wrong. Maybe Rose said he believes he did nothing wrong because he’s lying.

Or maybe Rose said he believes he did nothing wrong because he doesn’t understand he did something wrong.

That’s the sad possibility of this case and countless others. People sometimes rape because they don’t understand consent.

Having sex with someone too drunk to give proper consent is rape. Doing a sexual act to someone who consented to sex but not that specific act is rape.

Rose should be concerned. The evidence against him is compelling, and it could lead to civil and criminal penalties. He should also be concerned whether he properly understands the line between rape and consent. You don’t know what you don’t know, and I hope Rose – even if he already already possessed a clear understanding of rape and consent – and everyone else uses this as an opportunity to thoughtfully examine what is and isn’t consensual. It’s important information to hold, because ignorance of what’s rape does not justify rape.

This isn’t an issue to brush aside for something as trivial as basketball.

Cavaliers guard Mo Williams reverses course, retiring now

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 22:  Mo Williams #52 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks on during the Cleveland Cavaliers 2016 NBA Championship victory parade and rally on June 22, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
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Mo Williams, despite retirement rumors, announced last week he’d return to the Cavaliers for one more year. Williams knew Cleveland would face major challenges without him, being forced to rely on young and unproven Kay Felder and Jordan McRae behind Kyrie Irving at point guard .

Williams, via David McMenamin of ESPN:

I didn’t want to put the Cavs in that situation at the end of the day.

Well, Williams is putting the Cavs in that situation.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

Williams, 33, informed the Cavaliers just before Media Day Monday that he was retiring from basketball, not even a week after announcing via Twitter that he would return for one more season.

Cleveland general manager David Griffin said at the top of his press conference that Williams’ agent, Raymond Brothers, informed the Cavs of Williams’ latest decision in the morning.

It seemed possible Williams wanted to retire but was trying to extract a buyout on his $2,194,500 salary. Doing so would’ve required convincing the Cavs he’d grind through the season but, hampered by injuries, not produce enough to justify his salary and roster spot.

It’s unclear whether the Cavaliers called a bluff, agreed to a buyout or Williams had a true change of heart. Cleveland would be especially reluctant to give him a portion of his salary, because those payments would count toward the luxury tax. But maybe the Cavs are willing to incur a small hit.

This puts plenty of pressure on Felder, the No. 54 pick. He has shooting and distributing talent, and his hops are eye-catching. But the adjustment from mid-major Oakland to the NBA is tough for anyone, let alone someone 5-foot-9.

At least the Cavs can turn to LeBron James as the de facto backup point guard in big games. Give him the ball, flank him with a few wings, and Cleveland will be alright.

This just makes it a little harder – which is not to say hard – for the Cavs to claim the No. 1 seed while limiting their stars’ minutes and set themselves up for those big games next spring and summer.