Four teams that could head off a Lakers vs. Heat NBA final

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It’s the consensus of prognosticators (and me as well) — the NBA finals will be the Miami Heat vs. Los Angeles Lakers. Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James. You can already sense David Stern drooling like a Pavlovian dog thinking about the television ratings.

What teams could destroy David Stern’s dream?

There are four. While we could argue that each of these four need a little luck or for the Heat/Lakers to come back to them, we could say the same for the Heat and Lakers. Fact is you don’t win an NBA title without some breaks going your way.

So here are the four most likely teams to get in the way, two West and two East.

Oklahoma City Thunder. They remain the next best team in the West, even after the James Harden trade. (I think they take a step back after trading away a key playmaker, the Sixth Man of the Year and an Olympian and trying to fill his minutes with Kevin Martin. Long term with the picks and Jeremy Lamb we can debate the trade impacts, but the Thunder did not get instantly better Saturday night with this move.)

The Thunder have improved each year because their players have improved and gotten more experienced. That will happen again. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are going to take steps forward after their Olympic experience — and the Lakers will struggle to stop Durant, even with Dwight Howard in the paint. OKC gets Eric Maynor back and that gives them depth at the point guard spot and another playmaker. They have Kendrick Perkins to match up with Dwight Howard and Serge Ibaka to slow Pau Gasol. Westbrook can hamper Steve Nash.

The Thunder are not as good a team without Harden, but they are still very good and still match up with the Lakers as well as anyone.

Los Angeles Clippers. You can argue the San Antonio Spurs should fit here, but the last couple seasons showed me that while they are awesome in the regular season you can scheme for their weaknesses come the playoffs. The Clippers are a team on the rise. They have the single best pure point guard in the game in Chris Paul, and he is in a contract year so expect big things. They added some depth with Jamal Crawford, and while I’m not his biggest fan he is an upgrade over what they had. Eric Bledsoe is coming into his own off the bench. They have solid veterans like Caron Butler and — once he gets in shape — Lamar Odom. Oh, an they have the force of nature that is Blake Griffin. Paul is just figuring out how to use all those pieces.

The key for the Clippers in the playoffs is DeAndre Jordan. Last season he got benched for Reggie Evans when the going got tough. That’s not good. The Clippers need Jordan to take a huge step forward because they need his athleticism to combat Howard if they face the Lakers. If Jordan is in foul trouble or just plain old ineffective, the Lakers would run them over without slowing. But Jordan and his growth — scoring and putting pressure on Howard on both ends of the floor — changes the dynamic. He makes it possible. But it’s asking a lot of him to make that leap.

Boston Celtics. They came within a game of getting the Heat last season, and while they racked up a 3-2 lead in the series with Chris Bosh out it still shows they were close. Then Boston got better this summer — Jason Terry is better right now than Ray Allen. Not over their careers, maybe not now as a pure shooter, but Terry brings far more shot creation and versatility to the Celtics. Boston also gets Jeff Green back and he gives them real depth off the bench. Jared Sullinger should let Kevin Garnett rest more.

Boston must have a healthy and rested Garnett to have a shot at the Heat — he is the heart of their defense has to play as well or better than last year to have a shot. Rajon Rondo has to step up his game and get his squad more easy looks offensively against a swarming Heat defense. Boston cannot show their age. The good news for Celtics fans is Boston matches up well with Miami considering its defense, Paul Pierce and his ability to score, and now some punch off the bench. It’s not easy, but the Celtics have a puncher’s chance in a series with Miami.

Indiana Pacers. If you’re going to beat the Heat, the best way to do it is with size — Indiana has that in Roy Hibbert. One of the key turning points in the playoffs last season was when the Heat fell behind the Pacers because of the play of Hibbert and they had to adjust their style and step up their play. The Heat had that other gear.

To best the Heat Pacers need George Hill and Paul George to take steps forward with their game (both would be key in the finals, particularly on defense), David West to keep being himself, Granger to be steady in the big moments and Hibbert to become a dominating force. The Pacers lack the kind of superstar player the Heat have two (or three) of, but they have great balance, good depth and the size that could give the Heat fits. They just have to play nearly flawless basketball (and hope the Heat do not).

Report: Derrick Rose leaning toward Cavaliers over Lakers

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Derrick Rose met with the Lakers.

Now, it’s the Cavaliers’ turn.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Free-agent guard Derrick Rose is meeting with Cleveland Cavaliers officials in Ohio on Monday, league sources told ESPN.

Rose met with the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday, but has been leaning toward the Cavaliers opportunity, league sources told ESPN.

The Lakers can offer more (the $4,328,000 room exception) than the Cavs are reportedly offering ($2,116,955 minimum contract), but Rose might be eying a starting spot in Cleveland. That comes with complications for both sides.

Just because Kyrie Irving requested a trade doesn’t mean the Cavaliers will trade him. He’s still locked into his contract for two more years, and amid concern of his trade value slipping due to his request leaking, they might just hold him.

Rose’s creaky outside shooting makes him a poor fit with LeBron James. Rose would be an upgrade off the bench, especially as a shot creator while LeBron and Irving are off the floor. But he’s almost certain to underwhelm as a starter.

I doubt that’s how Rose views it, though. The Cavs offer a better path to starting with Irving on the trade block and the Lakers committed to developing Lonzo Ball. One year starting for a prominent team could put Rose right back in the free agent market, in line to receive the contract he believes he deserves. He’d also be playing for a far better team in the interim.

But, if he signs with Cleveland and the Lakers put the full room exception on the table, there’s a good chance, a year from now, he regrets not guaranteeing himself an extra couple million dollars.

Video Breakdown: What is a slot screen and how do NBA teams use it?

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The slot screen just might be one of the most common plays in the NBA when it comes to the pick-and-roll, but can you identify it?

Before we talk about what a slot screen is, we have to define what the slot is when it comes to an NBA basketball court. In simple terms, the “slot” is the area between the elbows and extended above the 3-point line. If you talk to an NBA coach, they would tell you that this area of the floor is referred to as “the slot.”

It stands to reason then that the slot screen is simply a screen that happens within this area of the floor.

So why would you want to know what a slot screen is?

One reason might be to better understand how Your favorite player operates in screens on different parts of the floor. While some players may be a very good at dealing with the pick-and-roll in space and in the slot, they could be comprably worse in Pistol action or in Get action.

Watch the full video breakdown above to see how the slot screen works in an NBA offense.

Eric Bledsoe on Phoenix: “I love everything about it. At the same time I want to win.”

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Ever since news leaked — however it leaked — that Kyrie Irving wants out of Cleveland, Eric Bledsoe‘s name has come up in rumors. A lot. In part because Bledsoe is friends with LeBron James. In part because if Bledsoe went to Cleveland (as part of a package deal), it would give the Cavaliers guy who could play well next to LeBron, and while Bledsoe is no Irving he is a better defender. Bledsoe’s name has come up in a direct trade and as part of a potential three-way deal (none of which is close to happening right now).

Bledsoe has spent the past four seasons in Phoenix and has put down some roots. Does he want to move on? He talked about that and the rumors with Scott Bordow of the Arizona Republic.

Then there’s the question of whether Bledsoe wants to remain in Phoenix. He has embraced the Valley, saying, “I love everything about it.” But as he told azcentral sports Sunday, “At the same time I want to win.”

At 27, Bledsoe doesn’t fit into the Suns’ youth movement, or #timeline, as it’s been coined on social media. He said he “definitely feels” like an old man among his teammates. Then there was this response when asked what he thought of the Suns’ offseason:

“We got Josh Jackson. James Jones (in the front office). But for the most part, I don’t care,” he said. “Whatever team we have at training I’m going to play my heart out for. I just control what I can control. Getting better every time I step onto the floor.”

That was the professional non-answer.

No doubt Bledsoe enjoys the Valley of the Sun, but give him a chance to chase a ring in Cleveland and he’s in. Maybe Irving is done playing with LeBron and going to the Finals, but Bledsoe would love to be in his shoes for a year.

Whether or not it’s Cleveland, expect Bledsoe to be moved by the next trade deadline. He a very reasonable two-years, $29.5 million left on his contract, was playing his best basketball last season before the Suns shut him down (while healthy), he doesn’t fit with the Suns’ youth direction, and a number of teams could use him.

Report: Kyrie Irving’s top choice for trade is Spurs

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Kyrie Irving, in requesting a trade, reportedly gave the Cavaliers a list of preferred destinations – Knicks, Heat, Spurs and Timberwolves. But those teams aren’t all equal to Irving.

Adam Zagoria of Zagsblog:

One league source told ZAGSBLOG that the Knicks were not Irving’s preferred destination, and that San Antonio was atop his list.

Irving is locked up for two more years and doesn’t possess a no-trade clause. Where he’d re-sign in 2019 and his agent’s agitating could play small parts in which teams offer the most for him, but he has minimal control of where he goes.

Still, San Antonio is an interesting first choice.

Irving reportedly wants to escape LeBron James‘ shadow and lead his own team. But Kawhi Leonard is far better than Irving and already has Spurs president/coach Gregg Popovich’s trust. Leonard has even turned himself into a 25-point-per-game scorer and MVP runner-up. So, even though the biggest difference between Leonard and Irving is defense (an oft-overlooked area), Leonard still shines in ways that get noticed.

So, why does Irving want to join San Antonio?

Maybe he underestimates Leonard. He wouldn’t be the first star to do so. See Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge.

Maybe Irving has a sliding scale of priorities. Sure, he’d like preeminence on a team, but maybe he’d relinquish that to join Leonard and Popovich. At least the reserved Leonard would cede the spotlight to Irving as much as possible (which LeBron would never do), and Popovich is more respected than Tyronn Lue.

But back to reality: The Spurs lack assets beyond Leonard to trade for Irving – Aldridge would be a horrid fit with LeBron, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson, and San Antonio’s first-round picks are always in the low 20s – and the Cavs control where Irving goes. It’s very hard to see Irving landing in San Antonio.