Who can knock off Miami? NBA playoff power rankings

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If you want to hold the Larry O’Brien trophy — the one that goes to the NBA champions each June — you’re going to have to pry it out of Miami’s cold, dead hands.

Good luck. They are the defending champs. They had the best regular season record in the NBA despite coasting to start the season. They have the best player on the planet in LeBron James. They defend. They have strong role players that fit the system.

Miami is the clear favorite to win the title going into the NBA playoffs this weekend.

So who can beat them? Let’s rank the other 15 teams based on their ability to knock off the Heat.

1. Spurs (58 wins, No. 2 seed in West). If you’re talking about the team with the best chance to dethrone the Heat, the Spurs leapfrog the Thunder to the top spot. There are a few reasons for this — the Spurs have the veterans who will not be rattled by the stage, and they have the size to pound the Heat inside. Most importantly, their system — the ball movement and the player movement off the ball — is the best way to diffuse the Heat’s pressure defense.

San Antonio may well not even make it to the finals, however. They are older, a little banged up (Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are not fully healthy) and the Thunder give them all sorts of matchup issues. But if they can get to the Finals it could be interesting.

2. Thunder (60 wins, No. 1 seed in the West). While the holes in their game have been more evident lately, sometimes we overlook this is still a very good basketball team. They defend well and with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook they can score on anybody. Their style of play hasn’t fared well against the Heat — they need better ball movement under pressure — but any team with Westbrook and Durant has a shot.

3. Grizzlies (56 wins, No. 5 seed in the West). Memphis is a dark-horse favorite to come out of the West because they defend well and because they have arguably the best front line in the NBA with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. To beat the Heat you need to defend and pound them inside, two things the Grizzlies can do. The question is in the back court where Mike Conley would struggle against the Heat’s pressure defense for sure. The Heat would be big favorites, but they have a puncher’s chance.

4. Knicks (54 wins, No. 2 seed in the East). The Knicks have had success against the Heat in the regular season, but I’m not a believer in regular season games being predictors of playoff success. The Knicks can score and they would get up points on the Heat, but under pressure will they keep up the ball movement they had during their win streak? And I’m not sold their defense is consistent enough. But they have a puncher’s chance and they will be able to get in the ring with the Heat in the conference finals if they play the way they are capable.

5. Clippers (56 wins, No. 4 seed in West). Chris Paul is the gest point guard in the game and the Clippers have as athletic a front line as there is in the Association with Blake Griffin and Chris Paul. The questions for the Clippers — both in the playoffs as a whole and in a hypothetical matchup with the Heat — are the two we’ve had about this team since the start of the season: 1) Will they get enough out of DeAndre Jordan at both ends of the court? 2) How well will they defend? Not well enough, I fear.

6. Pacers (49 wins, No. 3 seed in the East). A couple months ago, when you talked about teams that might be the second best in the East and challenge the Heat you talked about Indiana. Their defense is good enough — with potential Defensive Player of the Year Roy Hibbert on the back line they have the best defense in the NBA. They have the size inside with Roy Hibbert and the length to challenge the Heat. But they don’t score enough, and the question is do they score enough to even get to the conference finals?

7. Nuggets (57 wins, No. 3 seed in West). If they were healthy — with Danilo Gallinari, with Kenneth Faried, with Ty Lawson at 100 percent — they’d be higher on this list. They are a favorite dark horse among pundits because of their unselfish play, but in a matchup with Miami their up-and-down style would get them in trouble.

8. Bulls (45 wins, No. 5 seed in East). They are gritty, they will bang you inside and be physical, they have the kind of size in the paint that bothers the Heat with Joakim Noah. It is possible the Bulls will get a shot at the Heat (if the Bulls can beat the Nets in the first round), but without Derrick Rose they are just not going to create and score enough points to win that series.

9. Nets (49 wins, No 4 seed in East). Deron Williams has looked like his old Utah-level self the past month or two, and Brook Lopez is the best scoring center in the league. But the Nets very average defense might have them in trouble in the first round against the Bulls, let alone against the Heat (who they would see in the second round if they get by Chicago)

10. Celtics (41 wins, No. 7 seed in East). The Celtics are going to be a tough out in the playoffs — they defend very well still when Kevin Garnett is on the court. Paul Pierce knows how to score. Jeff Green scores sometimes. They are a gritty, grinding team that will not go easily but will go. Very likely to the Knicks in the first round.

11. Warriors (45-35, No. 6 seed in West). Hey, you make the playoffs for only the second time in a couple decades, enjoy that. You should also enjoy having Stephen Curry and his sweet stroke on the team, and how this is a young and up-and-coming team. There’s a lot to like. But young up-and-coming teams learn hard lessons come the playoffs.

12. Rockets (45 wins, No. 8 seed in West). Kevin McHale deserves a lot of credit for melding a lot of new parts into a team that really works and plays to its strengths in Houston. James Harden has proved he can be a superstar that carries a team, Chandler Parsons and Omer Asik have stepped up into key roles. But their running style plays right into the hands of OKC in the first round, and while it will be fun they will be toast.

13. Lakers (45 wins, No. 7 seed in West). Lakers fans got what they wanted — a matchup with the Spurs. And as the Spurs are banged up the Lakers have a better chance than they would against OKC. But the Lakers are not a serious threat to anyone because their defense just isn’t good enough — the Spurs will expose it in the first round and carve it up (sorry Lakers fans, this will not be the flat Spurs team of last Sunday you get to face). Dwight Howard has stepped up in the paint but Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks will find a lot less space to operate and be comfortable.

14. Hawks (44 wins, No. 6 seed in East). Meet the new Hawks, same as the old Hawks. They have a strong front line with Al Horford and Josh Smith but they have never been a serious threat with that core and this year teams hoped to face them rather than the Bulls. They will not beat the Pacers, let alone the Heat.

15. Bucks (38 wins, No. 8 seed in East). They get Miami in the first round. There are some people in Milwaukee who think the Bucks have some real matchup advantages with the Heat. They also brew a lot of beer in Milwaukee. These two things are related.

LaVar Ball rants about female referee after his AAU team forfeits another game

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Remember when LaVar Ball – father of Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball – pulled his AAU team off the court and forfeited a game it was winning?

In a twist nobody could have ever predicted, LaVar apparently relished the attention that garnered and again sparred with referees today at the Adidas Summer Championships.

First, LaVar received a technical foul from a female referee. A lengthy stoppage followed, and LaVar apparently threatened to remove his team from the court. The referee was replaced mid-game, and play resumed.

Then, LaVar received a second technical foul. He apparently refused to leave, so the referees called the game.

Afterward, LaVar addressed the situation. Via ESPN:

LaVar:

She got a vendetta, because she’s a woman who’s trying to act – I get that she’s trying to break into the refereeing thing. But just giving techs and calling fouls, that’s no way to do it. I know what she’s trying to say: “I gave him a tech. I’m strong.” That ain’t got nothing to do with it. Just call the game. If you’re going to be qualified, you better be in shape, and you better know the game. And she’s bad on both of them. She not in shape. She not calling the game right. And she don’t understand. So, now she’s trying to make a name for herself. So, she walking around like, “You know I’m the only woman in here.” Yeah, we get it. I don’t care if you’re a woman or a man or whatever. Just be good at what you do. Don’t try to step in the lane – she need to stay in her lane, because ain’t ready for this. Coach the little kids first and then come up. Because she ain’t did enough. She ain’t got enough on her résumé. I can tell.

I don’t know whether LaVar is sexist, but he keeps coming across as sexist.

This saga puts a dent in Lakers president Magic Johnson’s theory that LaVar is truly focused on training young players and NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s theory that LaVar would settle down once Lonzo got drafted.

Lonzo’s talent demands dealing with LaVar, who wouldn’t be the first parent of an NBA player to be difficult. But it seems LaVar might be a bigger sideshow than the Lakers bargained for. They ought to be wary of that affecting them – if it hasn’t already.

Heat: We didn’t offer Cavaliers trade for Kyrie Irving

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The Heat were among the six (or more) teams that have submitted a trade offer to the Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Fake news, says Miami.

Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald:

Teams rarely go on the record to correct reports like this. Why did Miami do it here? It might have something to do with Pat Riley’s feelings toward LeBron James.

Other incentives are more clear. The Cavs want to showcase interest they’re receiving in Irving. The Heat want to protect their players from handling trade rumors.

Whether the Heat submitted a formal offer barely matters, anyway. They could’ve offered Goran Dragic straight up for Kyrie Irving. Cleveland wouldn’t have accepted that, anyway. Nobody has published specifics of any Irving offers, so it’s unclear any are viable.

Miami is willing to deal Dragic and Justise Winslow for Irving, per the same report from Wojnarowski. Again, whether the Heat offered that pair for Irving or just acknowledged that they would is splitting hairs. That shouldn’t be enough for the Cavs.

Bottom line: The Heat probably won’t trade for Irving. Whether they made an offer, planned to make an offer or just discussed parameters so far is a fight over imaging. It’s nearly irrelevant to whether the teams eventually complete a trade for Irving.

Kyrie Irving could become one of youngest stars ever to change teams

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Kyrie Irving knows, as well as anyone, the value of being an All-Star – how the status validates on-court performance, sells shoes and can be flipped for even more exposure. Irving is comfortable in that environment, promoting his brand at four All-Star weekends already and winning All-Star game MVP in 2014 in New Orleans.

He was back in New Orleans for this year’s All-Star game when he was asked to name his all-time All-Star team.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

As Irving announced his team — he was responding to a question — he said “I’d put MJ at the 1, Kobe at the 2, Ray Allen at the 3, gotta space it out, got to have a spot up 4, so I’m probably going to go with KG, he’s going to rim-run, do the dirty work. I’d put Shaq at the 5.”

What about LeBron?

Irving, via Vardon:

“Yeah, yeah, yeah well, I mean, he (James) understands,” Irving told cleveland.com, as he walked off the podium.

Foreshadowing? Perhaps.

Irving has requested a trade from the Cavaliers, reportedly to escape LeBron’s shadow.

But take a step back from Irving’s answer, and his mere presence in New Orleans for All-Star – again, already – foretold immense demand in the trade market.

Irving is just 25 and a four-time All-Star. Only two players have reached so many All-Star games and changed teams while as young as Irving is now: Shaquille O’Neal and Tracy McGrady.

Here’s every All-Star to switch teams before turning 26 and their age when the transaction occurred, Irving included for reference as if he were dealt today:

Player All-Star berths Year From To Age
Jrue Holiday 1 2013 PHI NOP 23 years, 1 month, 0 days
Terry Dischinger 2 1964 BAL DET 23 years, 6 months, 28 days
Jason Kidd 1 1996 DAL PHO 23 years, 9 months, 3 days
Ray Felix 1 1954 BLB NYK 23 years, 9 months, 7 days
Jamaal Wilkes 1 1977 GSW LAL 24 years, 2 months, 9 days
Shaquille O’Neal 4 1996 ORL LAL 24 years, 4 months, 12 days
Stephon Marbury 1 2001 NJN PHO 24 years, 4 months, 28 days
Don Sunderlage 1 1954 MLH MNL 24 years, 8 months, 29 days
Mel Hutchins 1 1953 MLH FTW 24 years, 9 months, 1 day
Andrew Bynum 1 2012 LAL PHI 24 years, 9 months, 14 days
Tracy McGrady 4 2004 ORL HOU 25 years, 1 month, 5 days
Chris Webber 1 1998 WAS SAC 25 years, 2 months, 13 days
Bob McAdoo 3 1976 BUF NYK 25 years, 2 months, 14 days
Billy Knight 1 1977 IND BUF 25 years, 2 months, 23 days
Len Chappell 1 1966 NYK CHI 25 years, 3 months, 0 days
Len Chappell 1 1966 CHI CIN 25 years, 9 months, 25 days
Kenny Anderson 1 1996 NJN CHA 25 years, 3 months, 10 days
Kenny Anderson 1 1996 CHA POR 25 years, 9 months, 14 days
Butch Beard 1 1972 CLE SEA 25 years, 3 months, 19 days
Frank Selvy 1 1958 STL MNL 25 years, 3 months, 7 days
Kyrie Irving 4 2017 CLE ? 25 years, 4 months, 5 days
Otis Birdsong 3 1981 KCK NJN 25 years, 5 months, 30 days
LeBron James 6 2010 CLE MIA 25 years, 6 months, 10 days
John Johnson 1 1973 CLE POR 25 years, 6 months, 6 days
Frank Selvy 1 1958 MNL STL 25 years, 7 months, 22 days
Sean Elliott 1 1993 SAS DET 25 years, 7 months, 29 days
Dennis Johnson 2 1980 SEA PHO 25 years, 8 months, 17 days
Alonzo Mourning 2 1995 CHA MIA 25 years, 8 months, 26 days
Andrew Bynum 1 2013 PHI CLE 25 years, 8 months, 22 days
Baron Davis 2 2005 NOH GSW 25 years, 10 months, 11 days
Bernard King 1 1982 GSW NYK 25 years, 10 months, 18 days
Vin Baker 3 1997 MIL SEA 25 years, 10 months, 2 days
Kiki VanDeWeghe 2 1984 DEN POR 25 years, 10 months, 6 days
Frank Selvy 1 1958 STL NYK 25 years, 11 months, 13 days
Kevin Love 3 2014 MIN CLE 25 years, 11 months, 16 days
Mike Mitchell 1 1981 CLE SAS 25 years, 11 months, 22 days

Irving didn’t sneak into only one All-Star game like Jrue Holiday and Andrew Bynum. Irving is a near-perennial selection.

And unlike several players on the above list, he’s also doing it in era where there are more NBA teams than All-Star spots. In the 60s, when the league was smaller, NBA teams averaged more than two All-Stars each.

Irving is under contract for two more years before he can opt out, and his salaries – and $18,868,626 and $20,099,189 – became bargains when the new national TV contracts caused the salary cap to skyrocket.

The timing of Irving’s trade request becoming public has certainly contributed to the frenzy, as other NBA storylines have quieted for the summer. LeBron’s enormous profile also draws attention to anything involving him and his team.

But players like Irving – young established stars – rarely become available. No matter when this story leaked or whom Irving was playing with, this is a special opportunity for whichever team acquires him.

Andrew Wiggins says he’s worth ‘nothing less’ than max contract extension

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I’d hesitate to offer Andrew Wiggins the full max on a contract extension.

He would not.

Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated:

While Wiggins said that he is taking a “day by day” approach to the contract discussions, he didn’t waver when asked whether he was worthy of a max contract, which could reach $148 million over five years with a starting salary of $25.5 million. “I definitely do,” Wiggins told The Crossover. “Nothing less.”

File this under: What else is he supposed to say? The two big questions:

1. Would Wiggins accept less than the max?

He might feel he’s worth it, but there’s value in security.

The Timberwolves could offer less now, knowing he couldn’t leave in restricted free agency next summer. There’s risk he signs a shorter contract next summer, but there’s also risk in overpaying Wiggins now.

Of course, Wiggins might get offered a max extension, anyway. But if not, he’ll have to decide whether he’d rather guarantee himself life-altering money or roll the dice on even more.

2. Would Wiggins’ extension kick in with Minnesota or Cleveland? Though the Timberwolves are negotiating with him, they could still trade him – even after he signs the extension – to the Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving. Minnesota is a known suitor of the point guard, and Wiggins makes sense in a potential trade.