Breaking down the playoff chase in the Western Conference

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The West is a mess. A deep, complex, playoff question mark still with a whole lot of moving parts.

Which is what makes playoff races fun.

We’ve got just more than two weeks of regular season games left. We’re going to try to lay out the entire playoff picture for you, but it’s messy, so stay with us here:

One and two seeds. It’s going to be San Antonio and Oklahoma City, in some order. As of Tuesday afternoon, the Spurs had a one-game lead over the Thunder.

The big key is the Thunder and Spurs face off Thursday night. That’s when we see how much the Spurs care about this race by who they suit up and send out there and who they rest… er, have to take out because their injured. If the Spurs win that game they not only stretch out their lead but also win the season series and the tiebreaker.

In the seven other games left this season, the Thunder have four on the road and four against playoff teams. The Spurs have only three on the road and three against playoff teams. You’ say advantage Spurs, but that means predicting Gregg Popovich and who he will play on any given night. Good luck with that.

Three, four and five seeds. This is where it gets really messy. Denver and Memphis are tied at 50-24 (Denver owns that tiebreaker) with the L.A. Clippers a game and a half back of both. Technically the Clippers as a division winner cannot slip any farther back than the four seed, but that would not give them automatic home court advantage. You really want to get the three seed and likely face Golden State or maybe Houston — the four and five seeds go head-to-head in the toughest first round matchup in either conference.

Denver has five of its eight at home and four current playoff teams (plus Dallas). Memphis has five games on the road but only two playoff teams (plus the Lakers, Blazers and Mavs in that road mix). The Clippers have the easiest schedule — five of eight at home and only one current playoff team (Memphis) but they have stumbled losing four of five.

There is no order there that would surprise me.

Six and seven seeds. This is going to be Golden State and Houston in some order. Golden State has a one-game lead and would like to maintain it because as scary as Denver (or Memphis, or the Clippers) might be as the three seed it’s not Oklahoma City. Houston wants wins for the same reason.

Houston is at Denver Saturday in a huge game for this seed matchup.

Eighth seed. This is a mess. The Jazz are as of Tuesday half a game ahead of the Lakers (tied in the loss column) and 1.5 up on Dallas (one up in the loss column) heading into a huge game for both teams between Dallas and the Lakers Tuesday night.

Here is the key — Utah has the tiebreaker over both Los Angeles and Dallas. The Jazz have seven games left, four and home and four against playoff teams. If Dallas goes 4-3 the rest of the way the Lakers must go 6-2 in their remaining eight games to pass them. And by the way, Utah is on a five game winning streak. All of which is to say Utah controls its own destiny. But it’s not going to be easy for anyone.

An NBA first: Every coach who started last season is back

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MIAMI (AP) — Dozens of NBA players found new homes this offseason. A few front offices dealt with hirings and firings. There’s a new arena in Detroit and an ownership change looms in Houston. The league’s logo was even tweaked.

Change was everywhere.

That is, except the coaches’ offices.

Here’s a first for the NBA: Every coach is back. From the start of last season to the start of this season – barring something happening in training camps, anyway – not a single NBA team has changed coaches. That’s an unprecedented run of retention and an obvious source of pride for coaches across the league as the first practices of the season get set to occur this weekend.

“I think what people are seeing is what this league needs, what these players need more than anything, is stability and a consistent message,” said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, who’s going into his 10th season. “Otherwise we’re just losing ground if you have to start all over every year. That’s a tough way to win in this business. That’s a tough way to build any sort of culture or consistency.”

No one is starting over in the next few days, at least in the sense that a new staff is taking over a team.

Last season was the first since 1963-64 – and only the fourth in league history – where there were no in-season changes. The league was much smaller back then as well, with only nine coaches having to keep their bosses happy.

It’s a 30-team league now, and a year ago at this time 10 of those clubs had a new coach.

“From top to bottom, we have a very high quality level of coaching,” said Dallas coach Rick Carlisle, the president of the National Basketball Coaches Association. “This is as stable as our profession has been in decades. Contracts are strong, the league is constructed in a way now where coaching is extremely important and ownership understands the importance of the coaching process.”

There hasn’t been a coaching hire since Jeff Hornacek was formally announced by the New York Knicks on June 2, 2016 – which might not sound that long ago, but in a field without any real job security that’s an eternity. So when coaches gathered last week for their annual preseason meeting, they celebrated the fact that there were no new faces in the room.

“We’ve talked about the importance of supporting one another – and at the same time, the need to try to beat each others’ brains in,” Carlisle said. “It’s a conflicting sort of concept from afar, but internally we are the only ones that know all the challenges that head coaches in the NBA face. And because of that, there’s a real healthy respect for one another.”

Summer vacations are ending now. Coaches will all be grabbing their whistles in the next few days, starting with Golden State’s Steve Kerr and Minnesota’s Tom Thibodeau on Saturday when the Warriors and Timberwolves open training camp – those teams can start early because they’re going to China in the preseason.

The other 28 teams start practice on Tuesday.

“In team-building and pro sports, a lot of times the methodical long game is what’s necessary,” said Spoelstra, the second-longest-tenured coach in the league behind San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich. “But you’re seeing less and less of that. That’s why last year was such a pleasant surprise. I think it really was a celebration of stability and an acknowledgment of how complex this position can be.”

 

Timberwolves sign Aaron Brooks for training camp, maybe more

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Tom Thibodeau brought in Jeff Teague to be the starting point guard in Minnesota (replacing Ricky Rubio, who was never a Thibs favorite). Behind him is the promising young guard Tyus Jones.

Could Aaron Brooks be added to the mix?

Minnesota announced on Thursday it had signed Brooks and he will be in training camp with them. While the terms of the deal were not made official, no doubt this is a contract for the minimum.

Brooks backed up Teague in Indiana last season, that trend could continue. Brooks will battle rookie Melo Trimble — also on a partially guaranteed deal — for the third point guard spot in camp. The Timberwolves have 17 people coming to training camp but do have a roster spot.

Brooks might work for the Timberwolves as a veteran off the bench, and we know Thibodeau likes veterans. Brooks brings energy on offense and he can knock down the three (37.5 percent last season), especially off a catch-and-shoot. However, he struggles defensively, especially if asked to switch. He has a limited game (which is why the Pacers moved on after last season and other teams didn’t come calling), but in a very limited role maybe it works for Minnesota.

Paul George says he “Didn’t know I was gonna be traded”

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As I have pointed out before here on NBC Sports, I really do love watching NBA marketing unfold in front of me. Some of it — like Kobe Bryant’s weird post career legacy massaging — is downright impressive.

Other instances are not quite as sly.

Enter newest Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George and his latest sponsored Instagram post.

In a recent video posted to his page, George put up a training montage set to an Eminem song that was essentially an advertisement for the gym and trainer he had been working with over the summer. The gym’s own page also features several of these videos. So far, pretty common stuff.

That is, until you read the Instagram caption and see what George had to say about his training. Let’s see if you can spot the issue.

Screenshot via Instagram:

Of course, the issue here is that George essentially took away the leverage the Indiana Pacers would have had if his trade request hadn’t somehow been made public. Repeatedly.

George knew he was going to get traded because Indiana had no choice but to trade him. Saying otherwise is a hilarious and transparent attempt to reshape recent history.

This is perhaps my favorite result of the platitudes drilled into the heads of players by team PR guys and agent media training. That is, when you talk nonsense for so long and during each and every interview — we just dug deep, it’s a game of inches, you have to want it more — sometimes you just don’t know when to stop trying to spin the story in your direction. Especially because the mantra of media training is to be boring and try say nothing, which is hard if you have something to prove or an opinion to change.

Between this and Kevin Durant openly admitting to having a burner Twitter account (which no doubt sparked a flurry of emails and calls between agents and their clients) this is shaping up to be one of the best NBA seasons in recent memories and that’s just from a new media standpoint.

Gordon Hayward says Isaiah Thomas “ultimately helped win me over”

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Gordon Hayward is now a member of the Boston Celtics, and we are all excited to see how the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference last season checks out with a newly revamped roster.

Of course, Boston has been the subject of much media attention after signing Hayward and trading Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving. I think there should be some skepticism about how quickly Boston will be able to put things together, but this is a team of former and current All-Stars so they will likely be at least a Top 4 team out East.

Meanwhile, Hayward has written a new blog post on his personal website about the summer, taking on such subjects as the move to Massachusetts, video games, and what to expect this season.

One of the more interesting things that Hayward wrote about was just how much of an influence Thomas had in his decision to come to Boston. Hayward addresses Thomas’ influence in a section dedicated to him finding out about the trade to Cleveland.

Via GordonHayward20.life:

He didn’t just help recruit me to Boston—he was a big piece of that recruitment. He had talked a lot about city and how it was different to be a Celtic. He talked about the intensity of playing in the Eastern Conference Finals, playing at the Garden in the playoffs, and how much fun it was, and how much fun he had playing in Boston.

All of that ultimately helped win me over. And by the time of the trade, I had already started to build a little bit of a relationship with him.

The rest of Hayward’s post was about the subjects mentioned above, but it ended by saying that he understands the history of the organization and that he feels like he has not reached his full potential just yet.

Obviously, in signing him this season that’s exactly what the Celtics and Danny Ainge are hoping.