Seven NBA playoff story lines to watch

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After weeks of trying to predict seedings and matchups while watching teams rest their perfectly healthy superstars, the playoffs are finally upon us.

In no particular order, here are the story lines we’ll be watching when the postseason tournament opens on Saturday.

How much damage can the Lakers do without Kobe Bryant?

L.A. opened the season as the favorites (on paper) to challenge the Heat in the Finals, thanks to the acquisitions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash during the offseason. An early season coaching change, followed by an insane rash of injuries derailed the Lakers’ chances all season long, and Kobe Bryant became the final casualty of the seemingly lost season once he went down with a torn Achilles injury just as the team was making a run at that final playoff spot in the West.

The Lakers managed to keep it together without Bryant long enough to beat the Spurs and the Rockets to seal a playoff berth, and enter the postseason winning eight of their last nine games. But how this team fares without Bryant while they try to combat the efficiency of the Spurs machine in a series will be extremely interesting to watch, though undoubtedly nerve-wracking for Lakers fans at the same time.

How far can the Clippers go, and what will that mean for Vinny Del Negro’s future?

Vinny Del Negro is legitimately on the hot seat in Los Angeles, for a variety of reasons. How far the Clippers do or do not advance in the postseason is likely to determine his fate, but just how far does L.A. have to get for him to be safe?

The Clippers have a tough but favorable first round matchup against the Grizzlies, who they beat in the first round of the playoffs a season ago in seven games. Last year, the Clippers were swept by the Spurs in the second round, so getting there again this year probably won’t be enough by itself to bring Del Negro back next season.

A trip to the Conference finals might be enough improvement to retain Del Negro’s services, but honestly, it’s going to be Chris Paul’s decision as much as it will be anyone’s inside the organization. Paul is an unrestricted free agent this summer, and will have all the say in the world regarding whether or not Del Negro is brought back next season.

Will the Thunder return to the Finals without James Harden?

Thanks to Oklahoma City largely returning the same roster from a season ago that got them to the NBA Finals, the Thunder are once again poised to make a deep postseason run. But the elephant in the room is the fact that they traded James Harden away to Houston, and the reality is that if they don’t make it back to the Finals, this season will be a wild disappointment, and the front office will be scrutinized for choosing dollars over a legitimate championship chance.

Can the Knicks win a playoff series for the first time in 13 years?

It seems like a silly question, given the success New York has put together this year while being lead by the league’s leading scorer in Carmelo Anthony, and a likely Sixth Man of the Year candidate in J.R. Smith. But nothing is guaranteed for the Knicks despite holding the two seed in the East, and a first round matchup against the Celtics could be terrifying given the history between the teams this season, along with the intensity that veterans like Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett will bring to a seven-game series.

How much noise can the Warriors make?

The Warriors are in the playoffs for just the second time in the last 19 years, and with one of the best fan bases in the league there to support them, it’s an exciting time in the Bay Area for a basketball resurgence to be taking place. Mark Jackson has been successful in installing a winning culture in just his second season as head coach, but he and the team have said all along that simply making the playoffs was not the ultimate goal this season. We don’t know what the team believes it’s capable of internally, but a first round matchup with an injury-depleted Nuggets team could prove favorable if Golden State can play flawless basketball during the road games of this series.

Will the Spurs finally live up to their potential?

San Antonio has always been one of the more well-coached regular season teams. Gregg Popovich has his system installed, and has the players on the roster to execute it to perfection, no matter the injuries that may take place over the course of the season.

But despite the regular season success, the Spurs haven’t been to the Finals since winning it all in 2007, and have lost to teams they were favored to beat in the playoffs in three of the last four seasons. We know the system allows for regular season success, but at some point the Spurs are going to run out of chances with their core of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, and Manu Ginobili to get back to the Finals. Another early exit this season would be a major disappointment, and might signify the end of an era in San Antonio.

Will the Heat repeat as champions?

This is the question we all want answered. Miami ran roughshod over the rest of the league during the regular season, and just about everyone fully expects them to continue the trend throughout the playoffs. The Heat have the best player in the game in LeBron James, and All-Star complimentary pieces in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh that are a wealth of riches when compared to the rosters of other teams Miami might face on the way to a title.

The Heat aren’t just the favorites to repeat as champions; they’ve become the expectation. The way they finished the regular season by winning 37 of their final 39 games is absolutely absurd, and they did so even while resting their best players at times along the way.

It’s gotten to the point where we’d all be surprised if Miami didn’t win the title again this season. But that won’t make the journey any less exciting to watch.

Jeannie Buss says she didn’t understand why Lakers signed Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov

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Last summer, the Lakers signed Luol Deng (four years, $72 million) and Timofey Mozgov (four years, $64 million) to contracts that immediately looked like liabilities.

At worst, Deng and Mozgov would help the Lakers win just enough to lose their top-three protected 2017 first-round pick – which would have triggered also sending out an unprotected 2019 first-rounder – then settle in as huge overpays. At best, Deng and Mozgov would provide a little veteran leadership while the team still loses enough to keep its pick… then settle in as huge overpays.

The Lakers got the best-case scenario, which was still pretty awful.

They had to attach D'Angelo Russell just to dump Mozgov’s deal on the Nets. Even if he no longer fit long-term with Lonzo Ball, Russell could’ve fit another asset if he weren’t necessary as a sweetener in a Mozgov trade. Deng remains on the books as impediment to adding free agents (like Paul George and LeBron James) next summer.

Who’s to blame?

Jeanie Buss was the Lakers’ president and owner. Jim Buss, another owner, ran the front office with Mitch Kupchak.

Bill Oram of The Orange County Register:

Within the walls of the Lakers headquarters, Jeanie’s grand corner office had begun to feel like a cell. She could not make sense of the strategy employed by her brother and Kupchak. They had cycled through four coaches in five seasons and under their watch the Lakers won a combined 63 games in three full seasons. Last summer, they spent $136 million of precious cap space on veterans Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov, who made little sense for the direction of the team.

“I just didn’t understand what the thought process was,” she said, “whether our philosophies were so far apart that I couldn’t recognize what they were doing, or they couldn’t explain it well.”

No. Nope, nope, nope. I don’t want to hear it.

Jeanie empowered Jim and his silly timeline, which made it inevitable he place self-preservation over the Lakers’ best long-term interests. That’s why he looked for a quick fix with Mozgov and Deng, who’s still hanging over the Lakers’ plans.

She deserves scrutiny for allowing such a toxic environment that yielded predictably bad results (even if family ties clouded her judgment).

That said, she also deserves credit for learning from her mistake. She fired Jim and Kupchak – admittedly too late, but she still did it – and hired Magic Johnson. There’s no guarantee Johnson will direct the Lakers back to prominence, but he clearly has a better working relationship with Jeanie than Jim did and, so far (in a small sample), looks more competent in the job.

Reports: Heat pessimistic about/uninterested in trading for Kyrie Irving

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Kyrie Irving, in requesting a trade from the Cavaliers, reportedly listed the Heat among his preferred destinations. Though Irving – without a no-trade clause and locked up for two more years – holds only minimal sway, teams would logically offer more for him if they believe he’d re-sign.

Will Miami trade for Irving?

Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald:

And while the possibility certainly cannot be ruled out, the Heat does not have considerable optimism about being able to strike a deal, multiple league sources said.

One Eastern Conference official who spoke to the Heat said Miami considers itself something of a long shot.

Tim Reynolds, the reputable Associated Press Heat and NBA writer, said on Steve Shapiro’s Sports Xtra on WSVN-7 that he does not believe Miami is interested in acquiring Irving.

Like the Kings, though to a far lesser extent, the Heat might not be interested because they know they stand no little of landing Irving.

Goran Dragic would almost certainly have to go to Cleveland in a deal, supplanted by Irving in Miami. Dragic would upgrade the Cavs at point guard over Derrick Rose and Jose Calderon, but at 31, Dragic would also significantly shorten Cleveland’s window.

The Heat would have to send much more. It’s just not clear what.

The Cavaliers, with Tristan Thompson, might not have much interest in centers Hassan Whiteside and Bam Adebayo. Justise Winslow‘s weak 3-point shooting makes him a tough fit with LeBron James, and Winslow’s shoulder injury last season damages his stock anywhere. Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson are helpful contributors, but Johnson’s salary skyrockets north of $19 million each of the following two seasons, Richardson will hit free agency (and get a raise) after this season. James Johnson, Dion Waiters and Kelly Olynyk – who all signed this summer – can’t be traded until Dec. 15. (I’m not sure which prospect is funnier, Waiters returning to Cleveland or playing with Irving in Miami.) The Heat also owe the Suns two future first-round picks – one top-seven protected in 2018 and unprotected in 2019, the other unprotected in 2021.

It’s difficult, maybe impossible, for Miami to assemble a suitable trade package given those constraints.

At least the Heat would keep open the possibility of LeBron returning if they don’t trade for Irving.

Cavaliers try to convey confidence amid their own star crisis (crises?)

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Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert said the Pacers could have done better in their Paul George trade – a bold (though correct) public critique from someone who had to apologize for his handling of the last time he lost a star and is staring down the prospect of losing another star this summer and the original star again next summer.

What was supposed to be a press conference introducing new general manager Koby Altman today predictably turned into an examination of Kyrie Irving‘s trade request and LeBron James2018 free agency.

“This thing is not broken,” said Altman, who takes over a team that has reached three straight NBA Finals – winning the 2016 title – but now faces immense peril.

Both Gilbert and Altman kept their assessments of Irving’s trade request close to the vest, not even confirming it occurred. But even NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said he assumes reports of Irving’s request are accurate.

Gilbert said he planned to call Silver, clearly part of an attempt to project stability. That was the transparent underpinning of the entire press conference, which included Gilbert saying he felt better about hiring Altman than any prior general manager. The plan went awry when Gilbert stumbled through an answer about why he’s never given a general manager a second contract and why the Cavs couldn’t lure Chauncey Billups, who turned down leading the front office and later said he knew of Irving’s discontent and labeled it “alarming.”

But Gilbert did give his assessments on the franchise’s biggest issues.

On LeBron’s future beyond this season: “We do not control all the cards we get dealt.”

On whether Irving will be in training camp: “Right now, Kyrie Irving is under contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers for two or three years, depending on the last year. So, as of now, he’s one of our best players. Sure, we expect him to be in camp.”

In context, Gilbert sounded as if he was merely saying he expected every Cavalier under contract to be in training camp until their contract status changed – not that he was predicting Irving wouldn’t be traded this offseason.

All reports are that the Cavs are proceeding as if they’ll trade Irving, though Gilbert also brought Kobe Bryant’s infamous 2007 trade request. Kobe and the Lakers reconciled, and he won two more titles in Los Angeles.

“I’m not saying that that happens here,” Gilbert said. “But the possibilities of what will happen are wide.”

The Cavs at least left the door open publicly for Irving returning. Altman downplayed any animosity between the team’s stars, echoing LeBron’s tweets. But Irving’s issues with LeBron appear to be deeper and different than face-to-face resentment, and this summer’s saga hasn’t necessarily helped.

Altman called LeBron “deeply committed to this team and deeply committed to this city” and Irving a “core piece of who we are and what we do.”

Yet, the new general manager wanted to expand discussion beyond those two.

“It’s interesting,” Altman said. “We’ve had an active offseason that I wish some of you would talk more about, in terms of what we’ve done.”

The offseason LeBron reportedly deemed frustrating?

Altman gets a pass for David Griffin’s departure, which clearly rankled LeBron. But Cleveland’s signings – Derrick Rose, Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Jose Calderon, Cedi Osman – leave plenty to be desired, especially as the Warriors load up. A championship looks even further from Cleveland.

With the goal so high and future so turbulent, Gilbert and Altman faced an uphill battle in projecting stability today. Luckily for them, this isn’t the true measure of success.

But things that matter far more – navigating Irving’s trade request, re-signing LeBron – might not be much easier.

Watch the top 60 clutch shots from last NBA season

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It’s that time of the year when there is no basketball, so we fill the time with idle Kyrie Irving speculation and video highlights of last season.

Along those lines, above you can out the top 60 clutch shots from last season, as determined by the folks at NBA.com.

The great thing about the clutch shot list is the ball is in the hands of stars at the ends of games, so there is plenty of Russell Westbrook, John Wall, LeBron James, Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and more. Personally, I would have switch No. 1 and No. 2 on the list, but it’s all fun to relive.