Boston Celtics v Miami Heat

Seven NBA playoff story lines to watch

15 Comments

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.

Watch Amar’e Stoudemire’s top 10 career plays (video)

Leave a comment

When Amar’e Stoudemire retired, I said history will treat him better than present-day analysis — maybe even to the point he gets legitimate Hall of Fame consideration.

Get past Stoudemire’s injury-caused decline with the Knicks and his wayward years with the Mavericks and Heat, and Stoudemire was a heck of a player with the Suns (and in his first year in New York).

Thanks to the NBA, the process of remembering Stoudemire for his peak can begin immediately. I was blown away by the first few highlights before realizing they were just the introduction for the top 10.

Kings GM Vlade Divac: DeMarcus Cousins is ‘most dominant player in the whole world’

OAKLAND, CA - JULY 26:  DeMarcus Cousins #12 of the United States Men's National Team dribbles the ball up court against the China Men's National Team during the first half of a USA Basketball showcase exhibition game at ORACLE Arena on July 26, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
1 Comment

Vlade Divac isn’t calling Rudy Gay with trade-talk updates.

So, how is the Kings general manager spending his time?

Watching DeMarcus Cousins with Team USA.

James Ham of CSN California on Cousins:

He’s primed to show the world what both he and plenty of others around the basketball world already believe — that he is the best big man in the world.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Kings general manager Vlade Divac said from his courtside seat. “He’s the most dominant player in the whole world. And being from Serbia, I have to root for Serbia, but I feel bad for them. He’s going to kill them.”

If we take Divac’s statement — “He’s the most dominant player in the whole world” — at face value, nope. LeBron James is. Other players like Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are also better than Cousins, but big men can dominate in a way perimeter players can’t

If Divac meant just among big men, there’s a case. When Cousins is fully engaged, it’s one I’d definitely buy. He’s a load to handle inside, and his defense can be top-notch.

There are just too many times Cousins checks out. It’s a fine line, because Cousins’ emotions carries him to his highs. But he hasn’t yet found an ideal equilibrium point. His lows are still too low and too frequent.

That said, no center nears Cousins’ peak dominance. DeAndre Jordan and Draymond Green, when he plays the position, need too much help from teammates to be considered truly dominant. Andre Drummond isn’t polished enough. Even with his flaws, Cousins is probably already the NBA’s most dominant center.

Most dominant player, though? No. That’s a step too far.

 

NBA’s 2017 London game to feature Pacers and Nuggets

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 10:  Paul George #24 of the Indiana Pacers shoots the ball during the game against the Denver Nuggets at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on February 10, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The NBA has held regular-season games in London the last four years.

The league isn’t exiting England now.

Pacers release:

Indiana Pacers will travel to London, England to face the Denver Nuggets for a regular season game to be played at The O2 on January 12, 2017.

 

The game will be designated as a home game for the Nuggets.

This could be a solid matchup.

The Pacers had a highly touted offseason, trading for Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young. Both players should fit better with the up-tempo style Larry Bird wants to play. And, of course, Paul George will be the best player on the floor.

The Nuggets had a quieter summer, but they nailed the draft with Jamal Murray, Juancho Hernangomez, Malik Beasley and Petr Cornelie. Add that to a young core that already includes Nikola JokicEmmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris and Jusuf Nurkic, and Denver is cooking. Veterans Danilo Gallinari,Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler and Will Barton allow the possibility of a quick rise. With Michael Malone coaching, it seems like only a matter of time.

Both teams should be intriguing in January — gaining chemistry and still in the playoff hunt.

 

Report: Celtics to pay second-round pick Demetrius Jackson more than 10 first-rounders next year

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MARCH 25:  Demetrius Jackson #11 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after defeating the Wisconsin Badgers with a score of 56 to 61 during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament East Regional at Wells Fargo Center on March 25, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Celtics became the first team to pay a second-round pick more the season immediately following the draft than some first-rounders received. Last year, No. 37 pick Jordan Mickey had a higher salary than four 2015 first-rounders.

Now, Boston is pushing the envelope even further.

No. 45 pick Demetrius Jackson will make more than the last 10 (!) 2016 first-rounders can earn in the NBA next season.*

*At least two players picked in that range, No. 23 pick Ante Zizic and No. 26 pick Furkan Korkmaz, will play overseas next season. Their salaries with their foreign teams might be higher than they could’ve gotten in the NBA.

Jackson’s salary will be $1,450,000, according to Yahoo Sports. No. 21 pick DeAndre’ Bembry will get $1,499,760 from the Hawks next year, and following first-rounders will fall in line behind him.

The issue is the antiquated rookie scale, which was set well before new national TV contracts pushed the salary cap north of $94 million. With all this new money flooding the system, everyone can grab a share — except first-round picks, who are tied to the scale.

That leaves even more money for second-rounders, and Jackson is the second to cash in in this major way. No. 31 pick Deyonta Davis will get $1,275,917  next season — more than the last six first-rounders. But the Grizzlies also guaranteed Davis’ first three years.

Jackson’s contract becomes much more team-friendly after this season. His salary the following three years is slated to be lower than this year’s: $1,319,500, $1,384,750 and $1,319,500. Yahoo’s wording is ambiguous, but it appears none of those seasons have any guaranteed compensation.

So, the Celtics are getting something in exchange for paying Jackson more now — flexibility in later years. The bargain works for them, because with the salary cap suddenly so high, they had little other use for that 2016-17 money. They essentially bought a better deal later by spending more when they were overrun with cap room.

And Jackson gets a bigger payday as he enters the pros. If he plays well, he’s stuck with a lower salary — though, for the next couple years, it’s still higher than a few first-rounders. If he doesn’t play well, he can be waived at no more cost. This is the opposite of betting on yourself, but that’s totally fine. Jackson will earn a lot of money this year in exchange. He got something significant with his bargaining power.

Projected by some to be a first-round pick, Jackson fell to the middle of the second round. Predictably, that probably turned out better for him.