NBA Season Preview: Boston Celtics

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Last season: They went 39-27 and won the Atlantic Division, which was nice but in Boston division titles are not how a team is measured. They handled the Hawks as expected in the first round of the playoffs, then in the second round ran into a plucky but inexperienced Sixers team and Boston won in 7 games.

But what really happened through the course of the season and the first two rounds is Boston found its identity — Avery Bradley starting at the two, going small with Kevin Garnett at the five, Brandon Bass at the four and playing great defense. That identity was enough to give the Celtics a 3-2 series lead over the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. They had a real chance. Then Chris Bosh returned from injury, Miami won the final two and Boston’s season ended with a feeling this core wasn’t done.

Key Departures: Ray Allen, frustrated with being the sixth man behind Bradley and not thinking Rajon Rondo was looking out for him, signed for less money in Miami. Boston is also going to miss the size and solid play off the bench that Greg Stiemsma provided. The other guys that left — Marquis Daniels, Ryan Hollins, E’Twaun Moore, Mickael Pietrus and others — can be replaced.

Key Additions: They brought in one of the better sixth men in the league in Jason Terry, who will provide both points and shot creation off the bench. They signed Courtney Lee, who will start at the two for Boston until Bradley returns from shoulder surgery, and Lee will bring good defense and three-point shooting that goes well with their style.

While technically he was around Boston last year, it’s like they add Jeff Green after he missed a season due to heart surgery. Good to see him back. I think Boston overpaid for Green, but he is a solid player off the bench. They also drafted a guy who should be solid as a rookie in Jared Sullinger (but some Boston fans seem to overvalue what he did at Summer League — he is not near the quality of Brandon Bass right now). Chris Wilcox is there and that’s a nice pickup. Jason Collin is there and… well, he’s there.

Three keys to the Celtics season:

1) The old guys all stay healthy and don’t regress too much. Yes, it’s cliché to say Boston is old and, really, they are not as old as they seem. With Allen gone and the return of guys like Green and Lee, Boston is younger overall than they were last year. They certainly are a deeper squad.

But in the end, they need Kevin Garnett (age 36) and Paul Pierce (35 when the season starts) to still be elite players. And to stay healthy. While neither are really injury prone, as players get older injuries (and the length of time they need to recover from them) become more prevalent. Pierce played through a knee injury last playoffs and it slowed him (even if he refused to admit it). Doc Rivers gets it as a coach and he is willing to lose games and sit guys to have his team ready, rested and healthy when the playoffs start. But it is still a concern.

2) They have got to improve on offense. We know Boston is going to defend like beasts — Rajon Rondo is one of the best defensive point guards in the game, Courtney Lee and Avery Bradley give them good wing defenders, and even a step slower Kevin Garnett’s defense in the paint is still quality. Boston will be a top three defensive team. But they were 24th in points per possession on offense last season (98.9 points per 100 possessions, when the league average was 101.8). One way to do that is to improve on their league-worst offensive rebound rate (they grabbed just 19.7 percent of their missed shots, the league average is 26.9 percent). Offensive rebounds are often easy buckets on put backs. Even if Boston is going small next season, they need to get more of these easy buckets.

3) Get to the free throw line more. This ties into No. 2 above. Doc Rivers has talked about this during the summer — last season Boston was 22nd in percentage of trips to the free throw line per possession. That number needs to come up for a couple reasons. It’s not Rajon Rondo’s game, but he needs to be part of the change. First, it’s easy points, just hit your free throws (and Boston is a solid free throw shooting team). Second, it lets them set their defense. Miami had success in the playoffs running off missed shots or turnovers, converting those into some easy buckets. Boston doesn’t score enough to make up for a lot of easy buckets. They need to eliminate them, and getting to the line more — meaning more guys attacking the rim and not settling just for jump shots.

What one thing should scare Celtics fans? Boston fans have let me have it on twitter when I suggested this before, but that may be because it strikes a little too close to home — even if everything goes right Boston still doesn’t beat Miami if the Heat are healthy. Boston fans point to getting to Game 7 with a host of injuries last year and a deeper team this year. Both true. But Miami had their second and third best players injured, they still won the series. Then they got better this summer. There’s a reason Rivers wants his team to hate the Heat. In the end, all the smart moves by Danny Ainge may not be enough.

How it likely works out: Boston is going to be one of the league’s better teams. They are going to defend. Jason Terry is going to have a big year (I think). The newfound depth will allow Doc Rivers to wear opponents down without wearing his own roster down. They are going to finish the season as one of the top three teams in the East… but the regular season is not how teams in Boston are judged. And in the playoffs the Celtics will be the kind of veteran threat that should scare opponents. They are going to make a run.

But in the end, their season probably ends pretty much like it did last year.

Prediction: 51-31, which I’m betting is the two or three seed in the East (the Heat will be on top and I think the Pacers will finish close to Boston in record). Come the playoffs, if they are healthy, another run to the conference finals is within their grasp. And if the Heat stumble at all, the Celtics could be right there. But don’t bet on a new banner in Boston, this team still remains a step below the league’s elite.

Manu Ginobili’s uncertain future has Spurs fans feeling anxious

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Manu Ginobili was swept away by the emotions of a sold-out home crowd serenading him with chants of “Manu, Manu” and rising as one for a standing ovation in the closing minutes of the Western Conference Finals.

Spurs fans were saying goodbye, but did not want to let go of the star who helped San Antonio win four of its five NBA Championships with his dynamic play.

“It was kind of emotional and overwhelming,” Ginobili said. “Yea, I don’t have a lot of words to describe it, but of course it makes you feel really well. Feeling that type of appreciation, love, respect. … When it happens in a situation like that and you receive all of that without expecting it, it shakes your world a little bit.”

The emotional outpouring led Ginobili to make a startling revelation to friend and teammate Patty Mills as they sat on the bench.

He had no idea what all the fuss was about.

“It felt like they wanted me to retire,” Ginobili said with a smile. “Like they were giving me sort of a celebration night. And of course, I’m getting closer and closer. There is no secret, for sure. It’s getting harder and harder, but I always said that I wanted to let it sink in for three weeks, four weeks, and then I will sit with my wife and see how it feels.”

San Antonio’s highly passionate fan base does not want Ginobili to retire. The fans simply wanted to show their appreciation because they are unsure if their beloved star will return next season. The Spurs also aren’t sure.

“If he decides he’s going to play again, that’s up to him,” coach Gregg Popovich said. “I won’t try to convince him one way or the other. I don’t think he needs that.”

Ginobili’s uncertain future is one of many questions the Spurs are awaiting answers on this offseason.

San Antonio’s season came to an abrupt end when they were swept by Golden State in the conference finals. The Warriors became the first team in league history to start the playoffs 12-0 after defeating the Spurs 122-108 on Monday night in Game 4.

Still, San Antonio’s first season in 20 years without franchise cornerstone Tim Duncan was a success. The Spurs captured their second straight Southwest Division title and earned their 20th straight playoff appearance.

“If you have half a brain, you put things in perspective,” Popovich said. “For the first year without Timmy’s leadership and a lot of new players, these guys got it together to win 61 games and just got better and better as the playoffs proceeded and we were basically on a pretty good roll starting Game 1 at Golden State. Some bad fortune which happens to all of us at some point in our lives and we don’t get to be the last team standing. But when I think about what they accomplished, they deserve a lot of credit.”

The Warriors outscored the Spurs by 85 points in the series after Kawhi Leonard suffered a sprained ankle in Game 1 with 7:52 remaining in the third quarter and San Antonio leading 78-55.

Leonard will be fine after some rest and rehabilitation. Forward David Lee is also expected to return after suffering a torn patellar tendon in Game 3 against the Warriors. Tony Parker is expected to be out at least eight months after suffering a ruptured left quadriceps tendon against Houston in Game 2 of the West semifinals.

Healing LaMarcus Aldridge‘s psyche could be trickier. The 6-foot-11 forward struggled in the postseason, especially against Golden State. Aldridge was twice held to eight points in the conference finals, including a 7-for-17 effort in Game 4.

Popovich isn’t worried.

“Not having Tony and Kawhi, it takes away our two best creators,” Popovich said. “They create a lot for our team. If one of the other scorers is left on his own like L.A. and he gets doubled and the playoffs get more physical, then you have to find scoring elsewhere and we had a problem doing that.”

The Spurs do not have any existing cap space to add players, but do have eight potential free agents that could impact that.

Lee, Pau Gasol and Dewayne Dedmon all have player options while Patty Mills and Jonathon Simmons are unrestricted free agents. Keeping Simmons may be difficult after his star turn in the playoffs, especially once Leonard went down.

“We value all the guys that are going to be free agents,” Popovich said. “R.C. and I will sit down and put together a plan and priorities and that sort of thing, it’s no different than any other year.”

Ginobili is a free agent, but is expected to return to the Spurs if he does not retire.

The question is, does he want to.

The 39-year-old rebounded from four straight scoreless games against Memphis in the opening round to provide San Antonio with a needed boost. He finished with 15 points in a frenzied 32 minutes in Game 4 against Golden State.

“I do feel like I can still play, but that’s not way is going to make me retire or not,” Ginobili said. “It’s about how I feel.”

Unsure of what that decision is, Popovich made sure Ginobili understood what he has meant to the Spurs and their fans. Ginobili started and was taken out of the game with two minutes remaining to huge applause.

“I’m really happy we did what we did last night for him,” Popovich said. “I think he really was moved by it. He deserved it and it worked out wonderfully.”

 

Report: Knicks would like to revisit Ricky Rubio trade talks, eyeing free agents such as P.J. Tucker

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The Knicks need a whole lot of things this summer — starting with someone who would give them anything of value for Carmelo Anthony (they may well strike out there) — but at the top of the list should be getting players who can defend. That’s the end of the floor where they had the biggest issues last season (they were 25th in the league).

One way to do that, revisit the Ricky Rubio trade discussions they had near the trade deadline. Ian Begley of ESPN said some in the Knicks camp hope to do that.

Some in the organization were hopeful after the trade deadline that they could revisit their attempts to acquire Rubio from the Minnesota Timberwolves in the offseason, per sources. It’s unclear if that interest remains, but Rubio would fit the mold of a two-way contributor.

Rubio found his shot after the All-Star break and played some of the best basketball of his career during that stretch. Combine that with the fact Kris Dunn struggled mightily as a rookie, and it’s hard to see why Tom Thibodeau and the Timberwolves would want to move the only quality point guard on their roster. If they do, the price will be too steep for the Knicks to afford.

On the free agent side, they reportedly have an interest in physical defender P.J. Tucker, among others.

The club has preliminary interest in veteran free agent P.J. Tucker, per league sources. Jeff Hornacek coached Tucker in Phoenix and praised him last season as a strong locker-room leader and intense defender. Tucker shot 35.7 percent from beyond the arc last season, including a 40 percent clip after being traded to the Toronto Raptors.

New York has also shown preliminary interest in New Orleans Pelicans forward and free-agent-to-be Dante Cunningham, per sources.

Tucker is an interesting fit, but he’s going to have other suitors as well.

Whatever Phil Jackson and the front office do this summer, they need to do it better than the Derrick Rose/Joakim Noah signings of last summer. There is some pressure on Jackson to get things right this time around.

As part of diversion agreement, Josh Jackson admits to damaging Kansas women’s basketball player’s car with her in it

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LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) – Former Kansas basketball player Josh Jackson must attend anger management classes, write a letter of apology and refrain from using alcohol or recreational drugs for a year as part of a diversion agreement arising from his confrontation with a Jayhawks women’s basketball player last year.

Jackson, who is leaving Kansas after one season and is expected to be a top pick in next month’s NBA draft, had pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor count of criminal property damage after he argued with McKenzie Calvert on Dec. 9 outside a bar in Lawrence.

Jackson signed the diversion agreement on April 26, according to Douglas County Court records obtained by The Kansas City Star. If he successfully completes the program, the case against him will be dismissed.

He is required to complete the anger management class and community service by Oct. 31 and write the apology letter and obtain a substance abuse evaluation by June 30. If the evaluation doesn’t make any treatment recommendations, Jackson must complete alcohol information classes by Oct. 31.

Jackson also signed a “stipulation of facts” that said he followed Calvert out of the bar after she threw a drink at fellow Kansas player Lagerald Vick. He said he yelled at Calvert and called her names before she got into her car and locked the doors.

“I kicked her vehicle, breaking the left rear taillight and denting the driver’s door,” Jackson said in the document.

A damage estimate of Calvert’s car for $2,991 was given to police in December, according to a Douglas County District Court affidavit. The total repair bill was $3,150, which included $1,127 for the driver’s door and left tail lamp. Jackson was not charged with felony criminal damage in excess of $1,000 because prosecutors couldn’t prove that he caused all the damage to the car “due other unidentifiable individuals damaging the vehicle,” according to county District Attorney Charles Branson.

He was ordered to pay $158 in court costs, $150 in a diversion fee and $250 in restitution to Timothy Calvert, McKenzie’s father. If Jackson violates his 12-month diversion, he would pay restitution of $3,150 to Calvert.

The 6-foot-8 swingman was the nation’s No. 1 recruit when he signed with the Jayhawks out of Prolific Prep Academy in California. He immediately earned a spot in the starting lineup, teaming with national player of the year Frank Mason III and Devonte Graham to form one of the nation’s top backcourts.

Jackson was the Big 12 newcomer of the year after averaging 16.3 points and 7.4 rebounds. He helped the Jayhawks to a 31-5 record and a 13th straight regular-season Big 12 title before a loss to Oregon in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. He has signed with former NBA player B.J. Armstrong of Wasserman Media Group.

Reports: Miami Heat, Chris Bosh have (or near) agreement removing him from roster, allowing comeback

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Chris Bosh is never going to suit up for the Miami Heat again. A blood clotting issue that sidelined him a couple of seasons back never fully went away and Miami doctors would not clear him last season.

He may never play in the NBA again, but his max contract is an anchor on the Heat’s effort to rebuild. Miami can waive him and apply for an injury hardship to get his salary taken off its cap (Bosh would still get paid, the contract is guaranteed, but it just wouldn’t count against the cap). The concern for Miami was a comeback — under the current NBA rules, if Bosh played 25 games for any other team, his full salary would come back onto their books.

Miami officials and Bosh’s representatives have repaired their relationship, and the two sides — working with the NBA and the players’ union — have an agreement on a deal, reports Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald.

Chris Bosh has told family members that an agreement has been struck among the NBA, the Heat, the union and himself for Bosh to part ways with the Heat at some point in the coming weeks, with the Heat receiving maximum cap relief, an NBA-employed source said in early May and reiterated Tuesday.

There are still details to be worked out so nothing is final, reports Ira Winderman of the Sun-Sentinel. He also does a good job explaining the deal.

Under the CBA in place until June 30, a return to the league by Bosh could have reinstated his salary-cap hit to the Heat’s ledger over the remaining term of his contract, which expires after the 2018-19 season. However, under the CBA that goes into place July 1, once a medical panel comes to an agreement that it no longer considered safe for Bosh to continue his career, there no longer is the risk of Bosh’s cap charge or luxury-tax hit returning to the Heat’s book.

The approach with Bosh, 33, from the league and union apparently is a one-time allocation, with Bosh in the midst of a preexisting condition amid the transition to the incoming work rules.

That seems fair. It lets Miami off the financial hook if he does return, and just as importantly for the team, it gives them financial flexibility going into the draft and free agency — if they want to chase Gordon Hayward or Paul Millsap or someone else, they have the room and no fear of a financial bombshell landing on them.

On the other side, it makes it possible for Bosh to return to the NBA if he wishes.  And if he can get cleared medically (which may be difficult, but the people around him say is not impossible).

The question for Bosh is how much he wants to come back at this age — it’s not about the money, he’s got a lot of that now. But it takes a lot of work to get back into NBA shape and prepare his aging body for another marathon of an NBA campaign. After time off, hanging out with his young family and pursuing his diverse other interests, does he want another go at the NBA or is he ready to move on? Only Bosh can answer that, and there isn’t a wrong answer.