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).

Bill Laimbeer on LeBron vs. Jordan comparisons: “I’ll take LeBron James, absolutely”

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LeBron James is headed to his seventh straight NBA Finals. He just passed Michael Jordan to take over the top spot on the NBA’s all-time playoff scoring list. Fourteen years into his NBA career, he has put together a resume that few in the game’s history can match — and he’s not done.

You don’t have to think that LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan, however, if you don’t think it’s a valid discussion, you’re blinded by bias.

Former NBA All-Star, champion, and WNBA coach Bill Laimbeer of the “bad boy” Detroit Pistons was asked about the LeBron/Jordan comparison on “The Rematch” podcast, and he said we’ve never seen anyone like LeBron (hat tip the USA Today).

“I’ll take Lebron James, absolutely,” Laimbeer said to host Etan Thomas… “He’s 6-8, 285 (James is listed at 250 pounds). Runs like the wind, jumps out of the gym. Phenomenal leader since he’s been 12 years old. Understood when he came into the league how to involve his teammates from the start. And you can’t guard him. You can’t double-team, he’s too big, he powers through everything. Michael was a guard. Yeah, he was 6-6, but he wasn’t a real thick and strong guard. It took him a lot of years to learn how to involve his teammates in order to win championships. Don’t fault him for that, it’s a learning experience. But we’ve never seen anybody like LeBron James physically. He just bullies you.

It was Laimbeer and the Pistons who taught Jordan to win — they beat the Bulls year after year in the playoffs, until Jordan broadened his game (and got better teammates) and the Pistons started to fade. People point to MJ’s unblemished Finals record, but he was seen for years as a guy who couldn’t get a team to the Finals because of those Pistons (LeBron learned his lessons on a different stage, taking some early Cavs teams that had no business in the Finals to that stage anyway, only to get crushed).

LeBron has a more versatile game than Jordan, which better suits this era: When Jordan was a force in the ’80s and ’90s there was no zone defense, which led to a lot of clear-out sets where eight guys watched a one-on-one battle from the other side of the key, and if the double-team came it was obvious from where. Jordan’s skill as a guy who could get his shot, kill it from the midrange or get to the rim, his ability to physically play through contact, and the legendary killer instinct made him great. But he was aided by timing — the booming popularity of the sport in the 1990s, the rise of Nike as a marketing giant, and the fact he didn’t have a true rival, a Bird to his Magic, that could best him.

LeBron has reached the point in his career that the legacy talk and where he ranks all-time is the only real discussion left — and Jordan sits as the bar to clear. Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Bill Russell, and a few others should be on that tier as well, part of the discussion, but the point is LeBron has moved on to that level of discussion. He’s earned it. The fact some people on Twitter/sports talk radio feel the need to rip him for everything doesn’t change that — if Jordan played the social media era he would have heard the same things from the same people.

Report: Celtics focused on adding All-Star-caliber frontcourt player

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Isaiah Thomas said he he’d happily forgo a renegotiation-and-extension if the Celtics use their cap space to upgrade their roster.

Where are they looking?

A. Sherrod Blakey of CSN New England:

Multiple league sources have told CSNNE.com in recent weeks that the Celtics are focused on landing an All-Star caliber talent in the frontcourt.

In the last three years, 22 frontcourt players have been All-Stars. Boston already has one: Al Horford. Could the Celtics land any of the other 22?

Almost certainly unavailable

Free agency

Trade

Free agency or trade

  • Pau Gasol (Though Gasol said he’d opt in, San Antonio might try pushing him out to pursue Paul. If Gasol opts in, the Spurs could also trade him to clear space for Paul.)
  • Dirk Nowitzki (The Mavericks have a $25 million team option on Nowitzki for next season. Nowitzki going to Boston, via trade or free agency, would probably require a mutual agreement between Dallas and him that pursuing a title elsewhere is the right way for him to end his career.)

Report: Spurs exploring Chris Paul pursuit

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The Clippers are taking the Chris Paul-to-Spurs rumors seriously.

And apparently so are the Spurs.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

The San Antonio Spurs are exploring the feasibility of making a free-agent run at All-Star point guard Chris Paul, league sources told ESPN.

San Antonio must complete three difficult objectives to land Paul:

  • Clear cap space. Even if they trim their roster to Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Danny Green and Tony Parker, the Spurs would still have to dump two of them to clear max room. Can they convince Gasol to reverse course and opt out, maybe re-signing at a major discount? Would they trade Parker, who has meant so much to the franchise? Would they deal Aldridge or Green, players who would make major contributions to a Leonard/Paul-led team?
  • Convince Paul to accept a projected max of $152 million over four years rather than the projected $205 million he could get over five years from the Clippers. Although the annual difference is just $3 million and Paul could sign another deal in four years, it’s unlikely he recoups that at age 36.
  • Convince Paul to leave big-market L.A. for small-market San Antonio. Remember, Paul forced his way from small-market New Orleans then ascended into one of the NBA’s biggest endorsement stars.

The Spurs boast a fantastic basketball culture, and Leonard and Popovich make great partners in a championship chase. There are reasons San Antonio is gaining traction with Paul.

But there’s still a lot for the Spurs to overcome. Will they? At least they’re trying rather than just dismissing the plot as unfeasible.

Cleveland GM David Griffin: “I hope everybody says we have no chance”

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The Golden State Warriors are heavy favorites to win the NBA title. According to bovda.lv, bet $100 on the Warriors to win the title and you get $41.7 dollars. Bet $100 on the Cavaliers and you get $200. And that number is likely to get worse for Warriors fans.

The Cavaliers are okay with that. They like being the underdogs. Look at what GM David Griffin said in a televised interview after they eliminated the Celtics in Game 5, via Cleveland.com.

“I hope everybody says we have no chance,” General Manager David Griffin said during a TV interview following the Cavaliers’ 135-102 win Thursday night against the Boston Celtics, clinching a third straight NBA Finals appearance.

“Obviously the team we’re playing is as good as you can possibly put together, it’s going to be an unbelievable battle for us, but I think [the Cavs] love battling together. The greater the odds, the better we seem to play together. We really do rally around each other in that sense.”

There is some truth to that.

There’s also a difference between that truth and slowing Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. How the Cavaliers are going to do that will be the interesting part of these playoffs.